A Study of the Hollow Earth

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A Brief Lecture on Mark Twain: “Cannibalism in the Cars”

There is not a great deal that we can say about Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens) that he did not say about himself. The first volume of his autobiography is 743 pages. There are two more to follow. Per his wishes, and in classic Twain style, he ordered that his complete work on himself not be published until a century after his death. So I hope you have some idea by what I mean when I say it is utterly impossible to cover even an iota of Twain’s life, accomplishments and philosophy here in 20 minutes.

It is funny that we find ourselves sitting here today to discuss classics by the likes of Mark Twain. As he put it: ‘’Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read’. But we do still read him, at every level, and continue to enjoy him, because what Twain wrote, his observations of man, religion, politics and society, even over a century later still rings true with us.

But, to start at the beginning, to ensure you leave here with enough information to possibly win a themed pub quiz, Samuel Clemens was born on November 30, 1835 under the glow of Halley’s Comet, in the state of Missouri along the Mississippi river, which would play such a pivotal role in his life, even after he settled in New York. He was the sixth of seven children, only four of whom survived into adulthood, and when his father died of pneumonia when he was only 11, young Sam became a printer’s apprentice. In 1851 he went to work for his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Hannibal Journal, as a typesetter and contributor of articles and humorous sketches. At the age of 18, Sam left Missouri, travelling around the eastern United States and working in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York City and Saint Louis. In the evenings he would sit in public libraries, educating himself. ‘Don’t let schooling interfere with your education’ is one of his oft remembered parables.

While travelling to New Orleans on a steamboat, Sam became enthralled with the idea of being a steamboat pilot. He spent more than two years learning two thousand miles of the Mississippi river, its currents and banks and inlets, before earning his license in 1859. This is where we finally get to start calling Sam by the name he is best known by: Mark Twain, ‘mark twain’ being old steamboat slang for a river depth of two fathoms, or 12 feet. This is also the time when Twain confronts one of his first great tragedies, the death of his little brother Henry, whom he had convinced to join him on the river, in 1858 on the steamboat Pennsylvania when it exploded. Twain claims to have foreseen his brother’s death a month earlier in a dream, and this spurred a lifelong interest in parapsychology. Though guilt-ridden, Twain carried on as a steamboat pilot until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1862, when travel along the Mississippi river was greatly hampered.

Though rumoured to have spent two weeks as a Confederate soldier (although Twain would later claim to be a staunch abolitionist) he had little interest in dying for anyone and Twain took off for the unsettled Western frontier, joining his brother Orion in the Nevada territory. Failing as miner of silver, Twain took up work at the Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he started to write humorous accounts of his travels to the West, and signing them with the nom de plume by which we know him so well.

He moved on to San Francisco, California in 1864 and a year later wrote his first nationally successful story, ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’. In 1866 he was sent o Hawaii as a travel report, and in 1867 to the Mediterranean. Initially, Mark Twain’s fame came not from his fiction, but from his comedic accounts of his travels, which were consumed by the American public. When he returned to the United States, the Scroll and Key Society of Yale University made him an honorary member. Twain was not yet 33, but already a nationally renowned writer.

By February of 1870, Twain married Olivia Langdon (from a wealthy, liberal family) and settled down in Buffalo, New York, then Hartford, Connecticut, after the couple’s only son, Langdon, died of diphtheria at 19 months. Twain would go on to outlive two of his three daughters, and his wife Olivia, which probably what prompted him to one say: ‘The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.’ And for all of his humour, Mark Twain was indeed a sad man, who knew a lifetime of sorrows, and is said to have been depressed for much of his later years. He died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, right when he said that he would: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” He died within 24 hours of the comet’s closest approach to Earth. The nation mourned his passing, and his surviving daughter placed a twelve foot long (id est: ‘mark twain’) marker at his grave. In his lifetime he championed abolition, suffrage for women, civil rights (going so far as to putting at least two African Americans through university), was an ardent anti-imperialist and anti-vivisectionist, and always with humour did he remind his readers of the many failings of man, god, and the government.

‘Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever.’

Mark Twain’s humour is what he is most remembered for. Among his many quotable quotes (and Twain is perhaps one of the most quoted of any American in history, with several web pages dedicated just to his clever quips) Twain once said ‘Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.’ Comedy has the power to topple the powerful. Humour is a hallmark of American politics, and no one did it better than Mark Twain: ‘The political…morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.’ He had little regard for U.S. politicians, paying them the backhanded compliment that ‘we have the best government money can buy’, and marked that ‘it could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress.’ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts annually awards the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to such comedic luminaries as Tina Fey and George Carlin who frequently target the vagaries and hypocrisies of politics: ‘Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.’ Nothing better embodied this mordant view of American politics than his short story “Cannibalism on the Cars”, in which men stranded on a snow-bound democratically select who it to be eaten.

cannibalism-in-the-cars

 CANNIBALISM IN THE CARS

I visited St. Louis lately, and on my way West, after changing cars at Terre Haute, Indiana, a mild, benevolent-looking gentleman of about forty-five, or maybe fifty, came in at one of the way-stations and sat down beside me. We talked together pleasantly on various subjects for an hour, perhaps, and I found him exceedingly intelligent and entertaining. When he learned that I was from Washington, he immediately began to ask questions about various public men, and about Congressional affairs; and I saw very shortly that I was conversing with a man who was perfectly familiar with the ins and outs of political life at the Capital, even to the ways and manners, and customs of procedure of Senators and Representatives in the Chambers of the national Legislature. Presently two men halted near us for a single moment, and one said to the other:

“Harris, if you’ll do that for me, I’ll never forget you, my boy.”

My new comrade’s eye lighted pleasantly. The words had touched upon a happy memory, I thought. Then his face settled into thoughtfulness– almost into gloom. He turned to me and said,

“Let me tell you a story; let me give you a secret chapter of my life– a chapter that has never been referred to by me since its events transpired. Listen patiently, and promise that you will not interrupt me.”

I said I would not, and he related the following strange adventure, speaking sometimes with animation, sometimes with melancholy, but always with feeling and earnestness.

THE STRANGER’S NARRATIVE

“On the 19th of December, 1853, I started from St. Louis on the evening train bound for Chicago. There were only twenty-four passengers, all told. There were no ladies and no children. We were in excellent spirits, and pleasant acquaintanceships were soon formed. The journey bade fair to be a happy one; and no individual in the party, I think, had even the vaguest presentiment of the horrors we were soon to undergo.

“At 11 P.m. it began to snow hard. Shortly after leaving the small village of Welden, we entered upon that tremendous prairie solitude that stretches its leagues on leagues of houseless dreariness far away toward the jubilee Settlements. The winds, unobstructed by trees or hills, or even vagrant rocks, whistled fiercely across the level desert, driving the falling snow before it like spray from the crested waves of a stormy sea. The snow was deepening fast; and we knew, by the diminished speed of the train, that the engine was plowing through it with steadily increasing difficulty. Indeed, it almost came to a dead halt sometimes, in the midst of great drifts that piled themselves like colossal graves across the track. Conversation began to flag. Cheerfulness gave place to grave concern. The possibility of being imprisoned in the snow, on the bleak prairie, fifty miles from any house, presented itself to every mind, and extended its depressing influence over every spirit.

“At two o’clock in the morning I was aroused out of an uneasy slumber by the ceasing of all motion about me. The appalling truth flashed upon me instantly–we were captives in a snow-drift! ‘All hands to the rescue!’ Every man sprang to obey. Out into the wild night, the pitchy darkness, the billowy snow, the driving storm, every soul leaped, with the consciousness that a moment lost now might bring destruction to us all. Shovels, hands, boards–anything, everything that could displace snow, was brought into instant requisition. It was a weird picture, that small company of frantic men fighting the banking snows, half in the blackest shadow and half in the angry light of the locomotive’s reflector.

“One short hour sufficed to prove the utter uselessness of our efforts. The storm barricaded the track with a dozen drifts while we dug one away. And worse than this, it was discovered that the last grand charge the engine had made upon the enemy had broken the fore-and-aft shaft of the driving-wheel! With a free track before us we should still have been helpless. We entered the car wearied with labor, and very sorrowful. We gathered about the stoves, and gravely canvassed our situation. We had no provisions whatever–in this lay our chief distress. We could not freeze, for there was a good supply of wood in the tender. This was our only comfort. The discussion ended at last in accepting the disheartening decision of the conductor, viz., that it would be death for any man to attempt to travel fifty miles on foot through snow like that. We could not send for help, and even if we could it would not come. We must submit, and await, as patiently as we might, succor or starvation! I think the stoutest heart there felt a momentary chill when those words were uttered.

“Within the hour conversation subsided to a low murmur here and there about the car, caught fitfully between the rising and falling of the blast; the lamps grew dim; and the majority of the castaways settled themselves among the flickering shadows to think–to forget the present, if they could–to sleep, if they might.

“The eternal night – it surely seemed eternal to us – wore its lagging hours away at last, and the cold gray dawn broke in the east. As the light grew stronger the passengers began to stir and give signs of life, one after another, and each in turn pushed his slouched hat up from his forehead, stretched his stiffened limbs, and glanced out of the windows upon the cheerless prospect. It was cheer less, indeed!-not a living thing visible anywhere, not a human habitation; nothing but a vast white desert; uplifted sheets of snow drifting hither and thither before the wind–a world of eddying flakes shutting out the firmament above.

“All day we moped about the cars, saying little, thinking much. Another lingering dreary night–and hunger.

“Another dawning–another day of silence, sadness, wasting hunger, hopeless watching for succor that could not come. A night of restless slumber, filled with dreams of feasting–wakings distressed with the gnawings of hunger.

“The fourth day came and went–and the fifth! Five days of dreadful imprisonment! A savage hunger looked out at every eye. There was in it a sign of awful import–the foreshadowing of a something that was vaguely shaping itself in every heart–a something which no tongue dared yet to frame into words.

“The sixth day passed–the seventh dawned upon as gaunt and haggard and hopeless a company of men as ever stood in the shadow of death. It must out now! That thing which had been growing up in every heart was ready to leap from every lip at last! Nature had been taxed to the utmost–she must yield. RICHARD H. GASTON of Minnesota, tall, cadaverous, and pale, rose up. All knew what was coming. All prepared–every emotion, every semblance of excitement–was smothered–only a calm, thoughtful seriousness appeared in the eyes that were lately so wild.

“‘Gentlemen: It cannot be delayed longer! The time is at hand! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!’

“MR. JOHN J. WILLIAMS of Illinois rose and said: ‘Gentlemen–I nominate the Rev. James Sawyer of Tennessee.’

“MR. Wm. R. ADAMS of Indiana said: ‘I nominate Mr. Daniel Slote of New York.’

“MR. CHARLES J. LANGDON: ‘I nominate Mr. Samuel A. Bowen of St. Louis.’

“MR. SLOTE: ‘Gentlemen–I desire to decline in favor of Mr. John A. Van Nostrand, Jun., of New Jersey.’

“MR. GASTON: ‘If there be no objection, the gentleman’s desire will be acceded to.’

“MR. VAN NOSTRAND objecting, the resignation of Mr. Slote was rejected. The resignations of Messrs. Sawyer and Bowen were also offered, and refused upon the same grounds.

“MR. A. L. BASCOM of Ohio: ‘I move that the nominations now close, and that the House proceed to an election by ballot.’

“MR. SAWYER: ‘Gentlemen–I protest earnestly against these proceedings. They are, in every way, irregular and unbecoming. I must beg to move that they be dropped at once, and that we elect a chairman of the meeting and proper officers to assist him, and then we can go on with the business before us understandingly.’

“MR. BELL of Iowa: ‘Gentlemen–I object. This is no time to stand upon forms and ceremonious observances. For more than seven days we have been without food. Every moment we lose in idle discussion increases our distress. I am satisfied with the nominations that have been made–every gentleman present is, I believe–and I, for one, do not see why we should not proceed at once to elect one or more of them. I wish to offer a resolution–‘

“MR. GASTON: ‘It would be objected to, and have to lie over one day under the rules, thus bringing about the very delay you wish to avoid. The gentleman from New Jersey–‘

“MR. VAN NOSTRAND: ‘Gentlemen–I am a stranger among you; I have not sought the distinction that has been conferred upon me, and I feel a delicacy–‘

“MR. MORGAN Of Alabama (interrupting): ‘I move the previous question.’

“The motion was carried, and further debate shut off, of course. The motion to elect officers was passed, and under it Mr. Gaston was chosen chairman, Mr. Blake, secretary, Messrs. Holcomb, Dyer, and Baldwin a committee on nominations, and Mr. R. M. Howland, purveyor, to assist the committee in making selections.

“A recess of half an hour was then taken, and some little caucusing followed. At the sound of the gavel the meeting reassembled, and the committee reported in favor of Messrs. George Ferguson of Kentucky, Lucien Herrman of Louisiana, and W. Messick of Colorado as candidates. The report was accepted.

“MR. ROGERS of Missouri: ‘Mr. President The report being properly before the House now, I move to amend it by substituting for the name of Mr. Herrman that of Mr. Lucius Harris of St. Louis, who is well and honorably known to us all. I do not wish to be understood as casting the least reflection upon the high character and standing of the gentleman from Louisiana far from it. I respect and esteem him as much as any gentleman here present possibly can; but none of us can be blind to the fact that he has lost more flesh during the week that we have lain here than any among us–none of us can be blind to the fact that the committee has been derelict in its duty, either through negligence or a graver fault, in thus offering for our suffrages a gentleman who, however pure his own motives may be, has really less nutriment in him–‘

“THE CHAIR: ‘The gentleman from Missouri will take his seat. The Chair cannot allow the integrity of the committee to be questioned save by the regular course, under the rules. What action will the House take upon the gentleman’s motion?’

“MR. HALLIDAY of Virginia: ‘I move to further amend the report by substituting Mr. Harvey Davis of Oregon for Mr. Messick. It may be urged by gentlemen that the hardships and privations of a frontier life have rendered Mr. Davis tough; but, gentlemen, is this a time to cavil at toughness? Is this a time to be fastidious concerning trifles? Is this a time to dispute about matters of paltry significance? No, gentlemen, bulk is what we desire–substance, weight, bulk–these are the supreme requisites now–not talent, not genius, not education. I insist upon my motion.’

“MR. MORGAN (excitedly): ‘Mr. Chairman–I do most strenuously object to this amendment. The gentleman from Oregon is old, and furthermore is bulky only in bone–not in flesh. I ask the gentleman from Virginia if it is soup we want instead of solid sustenance? if he would delude us with shadows? if he would mock our suffering with an Oregonian specter? I ask him if he can look upon the anxious faces around him, if he can gaze into our sad eyes, if he can listen to the beating of our expectant hearts, and still thrust this famine-stricken fraud upon us? I ask him if he can think of our desolate state, of our past sorrows, of our dark future, and still unpityingly foist upon us this wreck, this ruin, this tottering swindle, this gnarled and blighted and sapless vagabond from Oregon’s hospitable shores? Never!’ [Applause.]

“The amendment was put to vote, after a fiery debate, and lost. Mr. Harris was substituted on the first amendment. The balloting then began. Five ballots were held without a choice. On the sixth, Mr. Harris was elected, all voting for him but himself. It was then moved that his election should be ratified by acclamation, which was lost, in consequence of his again voting against himself.

“MR. RADWAY moved that the House now take up the remaining candidates, and go into an election for breakfast. This was carried.

“On the first ballot–there was a tie, half the members favoring one candidate on account of his youth, and half favoring the other on account of his superior size. The President gave the casting vote for the latter, Mr. Messick. This decision created considerable dissatisfaction among the friends of Mr. Ferguson, the defeated candidate, and there was some talk of demanding a new ballot; but in the midst of it a motion to adjourn was carried, and the meeting broke up at once.

“The preparations for supper diverted the attention of the Ferguson faction from the discussion of their grievance for a long time, and then, when they would have taken it up again, the happy announcement that Mr. Harris was ready drove all thought of it to the winds.

“We improvised tables by propping up the backs of car-seats, and sat down with hearts full of gratitude to the finest supper that had blessed our vision for seven torturing days. How changed we were from what we had been a few short hours before! Hopeless, sad-eyed misery, hunger, feverish anxiety, desperation, then; thankfulness, serenity, joy too deep for utterance now. That I know was the cheeriest hour of my eventful life. The winds howled, and blew the snow wildly about our prison house, but they were powerless to distress us any more. I liked Harris. He might have been better done, perhaps, but I am free to say that no man ever agreed with me better than Harris, or afforded me so large a degree of satisfaction. Messick was very well, though rather high-flavored, but for genuine nutritiousness and delicacy of fiber, give me Harris. Messick had his good points–I will not attempt to deny it, nor do I wish to do it but he was no more fitted for breakfast than a mummy would be, sir–not a bit. Lean?–why, bless me!–and tough? Ah, he was very tough! You could not imagine it–you could never imagine anything like it.”

“Do you mean to tell me that–”

“Do not interrupt me, please. After breakfast we elected a man by the name of Walker, from Detroit, for supper. He was very good. I wrote his wife so afterward. He was worthy of all praise. I shall always remember Walker. He was a little rare, but very good. And then the next morning we had Morgan of Alabama for breakfast. He was one of the finest men I ever sat down to handsome, educated, refined, spoke several languages fluently a perfect gentleman he was a perfect gentleman, and singularly juicy. For supper we had that Oregon patriarch, and he was a fraud, there is no question about it–old, scraggy, tough, nobody can picture the reality. I finally said, gentlemen, you can do as you like, but I will wait for another election. And Grimes of Illinois said, ‘Gentlemen, I will wait also. When you elect a man that has something to recommend him, I shall be glad to join you again.’ It soon became evident that there was general dissatisfaction with Davis of Oregon, and so, to preserve the good will that had prevailed so pleasantly since we had had Harris, an election was called, and the result of it was that Baker of Georgia was chosen. He was splendid! Well, well–after that we had Doolittle, and Hawkins, and McElroy (there was some complaint about McElroy, because he was uncommonly short and thin), and Penrod, and two Smiths, and Bailey (Bailey had a wooden leg, which was clear loss, but he was otherwise good), and an Indian boy, and an organ-grinder, and a gentleman by the name of Buckminster–a poor stick of a vagabond that wasn’t any good for company and no account for breakfast. We were glad we got him elected before relief came.”

“And so the blessed relief did come at last?”

“Yes, it came one bright, sunny morning, just after election. John Murphy was the choice, and there never was a better, I am willing to testify; but John Murphy came home with us, in the train that came to succor us, and lived to marry the widow Harris–”

“Relict of–”

“Relict of our first choice. He married her, and is happy and respected and prosperous yet. Ah, it was like a novel, sir–it was like a romance. This is my stopping-place, sir; I must bid you goodby. Any time that you can make it convenient to tarry a day or two with me, I shall be glad to have you. I like you, sir; I have conceived an affection for you. I could like you as well as I liked Harris himself, sir. Good day, sir, and a pleasant journey.”

He was gone. I never felt so stunned, so distressed, so bewildered in my life. But in my soul I was glad he was gone. With all his gentleness of manner and his soft voice, I shuddered whenever he turned his hungry eye upon me; and when I heard that I had achieved his perilous affection, and that I stood almost with the late Harris in his esteem, my heart fairly stood still!

I was bewildered beyond description. I did not doubt his word; I could not question a single item in a statement so stamped with the earnestness of truth as his; but its dreadful details overpowered me, and threw my thoughts into hopeless confusion. I saw the conductor looking at me. I said, “Who is that man?”

“He was a member of Congress once, and a good one. But he got caught in a snow-drift in the cars, and like to have been starved to death. He got so frost-bitten and frozen up generally, and used up for want of something to eat, that he was sick and out of his head two or three months afterward. He is all right now, only he is a monomaniac, and when he gets on that old subject he never stops till he has eat up that whole car-load of people he talks about. He would have finished the crowd by this time, only he had to get out here. He has got their names as pat as A B C. When he gets them all eat up but himself, he always says: ‘Then the hour for the usual election for breakfast having arrived; and there being no opposition, I was duly elected, after which, there being no objections offered, I resigned. Thus I am here.'”

I felt inexpressibly relieved to know that I had only been listening to the harmless vagaries of a madman instead of the genuine experiences of a bloodthirsty cannibal.

-THE END-

 

 

 

 

 

 

Echoes: Literary and Historical Mars in the New Narrative

“We could cast our imaginations wider, to those who have tried to speak for all of Mars. To the astronomers looking at it with their telescopes, measuring all the qualities of light reflected from its surface, seeing seasons and imagining civilizations. Or to the writers inspired by those astronomical visions: H.G. Wells and Stanley Weinbaum, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Alexander Bogdanov and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Their imaginations took a point of light and turned it into a world of experience.” Oliver Morton, Mapping Mars, p. 3.

Despite the possibility of alien civilisations on Mars ground underfoot in the relentless stream of new information about the planet, the literary and exploratory history of Mars still influences contemporary authors writing under the new paradigm. The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury are the most prominently featured old literature about Mars, and the tropes of Martian life and survival in a hostile environment are still influencing plotlines. Life is the ultimate litmus test of planetary exploration in the minds of both scientists and authors. Not one of these novels (or most others published in the last two decades) skips the discovery of some form of life or fossilised evidence of its past presence. These older literary ideas are tied into historical retrospectives about Percival Lowell’s observations and NASA’s Mariner, Viking, and (later on) Pathfinder missions. In other words, there is ‘Nostalgia for an imagined Martian past and speculation about an imagined future,’ as a ‘dialectal responses to the ambiguities that Mars represents after 1972.’[1] This Martian mega-text (to borrow from Damien Broderick’s view of science fiction’s ‘interlocking web of fictive worlds’[2]) is built upon years of speculative fiction and science constantly being reinterpreted and updated, old tropes being assimilated by newer ones. Gregory Benford has noted that hard SF writers ‘hold in common the internationalist idealism of scientific bodies, and in their free trading of ideas often behave like scientists.’[3] This helps to understand the prevalent use not just of classical works, but the commonly shared sources of information, as these proposed soon-to-be-histories are written with a common historical/ literary background. Zubrin’s historian cum astronaut character is blatant in articulating the conflict between past, present, and envisioned future:

Edgar Rice Burroughs already told us about this place. Once there were canals here, and cities, capitals of mighty empires that had names like Helium, Ptarth, and Manator. […]

Ah, Barsoom, you were destroyed by the Mariner probes, which banished you into mere fiction. But now we are here to make amends. Once again, there are people on Mars[4]

It is a rather ridiculous statement to makes; Burroughs knew next to nothing about Mars (only what was gleaned from Lowell’s fuzzy observations), he merely gave it the foundations of a fictive state to exist in. But the sentiment is meant to appeal to those who are familiar with Barsoom’s influence on literary Mars. In adapting to changing perceptions of the planet, these authors are attempting to make Mars interesting again, not with fantasy, but with the facts as they are known by presenting the visage of an adventurous, dangerous new world to explore. The past literary and scientific elements are called upon to invoke a popular nostalgia, and be reconciled with the new Mars, ‘to make amends’ for the years between Viking and the mid-1980s when authors finally began to write about the Red Planet again. They also revel in the early scientific speculation and unmanned expeditions to Mars, reiterating the great efforts leading up to this point in history and the significance Mars has held in the human imagination. These novels are about modifying the mega-text of Martian literature, turning what had become fantasy into the viable, realistic mode of prediction science fiction is often perceived to be, ignoring the extent to which it comments on the present.[5] In order to reshape Martian iconography, these narratives must be woven into the scientific and literary past. Just as latter revelations in both religion and science must take prevalence over those edicts and theories which preceded them, the more recent novels of Mars establish their authority over Burroughs and Bradbury by reminding readers of the fallacious bygone, while presenting the latest NASA findings. This also requires authors to take a planet redefined in less terrestrial terms, and humanise it again with more subtle metaphors; a vision of the Grand Canyon National Park rather than a medieval palace. It is acceptable to be inspired by past literature and scientific deeds, but the ‘new’ must be embraced, or as Gwyneth Jones put it, ‘In the hierarchy of sf plausibility, technophile extrapolation from the here-and-now takes precedence.’[6] This creates a cyclical relationship between the scientists making discoveries, the SF authors incorporating these discoveries into the plots, adding their own speculation, and providing stories of inspiration for a new generation.

Many authors and scientists were influenced by these tales of Mars, and ‘No matter how whimsical the Mars of Bradbury, or Lowell, or Burroughs, the scientists who now study the planet grew up under the influence of these visionaries. Some modern scientists, like Carl Sagan, have freely admitted their debt; others function in a culture conditioned by them.’[7] They were provided with the wonderland of a living Mars. In acknowledging the influences of these works, authors are demonstrating a hope that their own stories will inspire the future. Discovering life on Mars is fictionalised wish fulfilment, whether to merely alleviate the feeling of being alone in the universe, or to prove Mars a worthwhile destination deserving of further development. The dream of colonising Mars with shining domed-cities is not (completely) dead, but has been replaced with the more realistic near-future structures of buried brick vaults and domes of rip-stop Kevlar and Plexiglas.[8] Now there is simply more science to influence the settlement plan and those writing the narratives. ‘Good science fiction works […] Largely by retaining some contact with the real world,’[9] thus, by the authors maintaining parity with the known past while incorporating newer work, it helps to maintain the verisimilitude, allowing readers to relate more fully to the idea that this is the very near future.

The historical science references, from Lowell to Pathfinder, are meant to keep the reader in the present and aware that this is not intended to be an alternative universe with an alternate history (excluding Stephen Baxter’s Voyage in 1997 which deals with an alternate history and a Mars expedition in the 1980s). Bova makes reference to the first geologist on the moon since Apollo 17 and the use of Mir 5 space station,[10] establishing a continuation of known space programmes. However, as can happen when writing in the near future, the latter element is now a dated assumption considering the destruction of the original Mir and its substitution with the International Space Station (which Landis makes use of in his novel for training the astronauts, along with the fictional Mirusha, ‘“little Mir’- a tribute to the earlier Mir space station’[11]). But it is the Viking missions of 1976 which are more frequently brought up, the first American craft to touch down on the planet and conduct basic experiments, which revealed ‘that there was unusual chemical activity in the Martian soil’ raising the question ‘Could life exist in that soil, if there was liquid water available?’[12] The scientific history raises possibilities for the authors to explore and answer, and it offers a chance for the authors to pay homage to old scientists and explores who helped to shape the new Mars. In the novel, an excursion is made out to the Viking 1 Lander (renamed the Mutch Memorial station after the death of Thomas A. Mutch in 1980) to place a plaque in honour of the geologist who headed up the team which examined the Viking photographs.

DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF TIM MUTCH, WHOSE IMAGINATION, VERVE, AND RESOLVE CONTRIBUTED GREATLY TO THE EXPLORATION OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM.[13]

The plaque was unveiled by NASA in 1981, and is still waiting for a team of explorers to go to Mars and place it with the Mutch Memorial Station.[14] Bova is fulfilling the desire of many NASA scientists, if only in fiction, and adding another thread of reality to the inter-textual web.

A significant source of history that contributes to the plot later on in Return to Mars was the historic Pathfinder mission of 1997, when NASA finally succeeded in returning to Mars after Viking. Bova’s questionably enterprising character Dexter Thumball is determined to scavenge the Sojourner rover from the Sagan site in Ares Vallis to auction off on Earth. Upon retrieval ‘they photographed the area for comparison with the catalogue imagery from the Pathfinder itself three decades earlier.’[15] Instead of a simulacrum stand-in as SF so often must do for their plots, Bova is free to utilise these real artefacts of history as part of the action. Thumball the elder later decided to trek to Mars to check on his investments, citing that ‘older men than I have gone into space, starting with Senator Glenn nearly forty years ago’[16] in reference to Senator John Glenn of Ohio setting the record for oldest astronaut in space.[17] Statements such as this are superfluous to the plot action, but contribute to the verisimilitude of a potential near-future expedition.  NASA is a civilian branch of the US government, and in a (theoretically) transparent democracy, their activities are therefore part of the public domain, and free to be assimilated into the iconography of Mars. An invented NASA mission (for that matter, a fictitious space agency) would be a distraction for readers versed in space travel history, and so it is easier for Bova, and others, to appease the informed and inform the uninitiated.

Gregory Benford utilises more scientific history than perhaps any other author during this decade, planting his work firmly in the realm of near-future. The Martian Race brings up the 1989 proposal by NASA for a $450 billion budget to reach Mars[18] and the subsequent development of the Mars Direct scenario as a more economic proposal. The history of self-contained environments, from Mir to Skylab to the International Space Station and the Biosphere II experiment (including why it failed) are all brought up, and how self-contained environments still have not been perfected.[19] One of the Viking experiments is recreated, and the scientist confirms that ‘Viking and all the other probes had fund only chemistry after all, no evidence of life.’[20] The 1997 Sojourner rover is reflected upon by one of the astronauts as ‘its plucky nosing around had got Julia started on her Mars fixation’[21] – a statement that may prove true for future scientists. Benford is keeping his narrative firmly rooted in this world, as it were, allowing space exploration history to provide a large part of the context. Besides utilising the inspirations of The Case for Mars, Zubrin himself became a background figure assisting the private enterprise as the ‘Mars guru’, and is joined at a wedding by several more real life individuals[22] (all the scientists who assisted Benford in his research, many of them former member of the Mars Underground) and the base that the astronauts establish on Gusev crater is also named after him. This is a fascinating surreality of art imitating life, as Benford attempts to make his novel as realistic as possible. Zubrin’s work and personality have become part of the new Mars mega-text.

Robert Zubrin’s First Landing is a form of self- contained mega-text as it is self-referential of the author’s professional work; its a story centred on Zubrin’s own previously published theoretical approach to Mars, and Zubrin’s characters cite The Case for Mars and the Mars Society within the narrative. As discussed in the previous chapter, Zubrin is writing with specific agenda of proselytising and recruitment. NASA is the organisation behind the expedition, and the Viking missions’ experiments mentioned (pages 33 and 43). Even Michael Carr’s book The Surface of Mars is quoted (page 184) on a trip to Valles Marineris, as is Percival Lowell’s view on the Martian need to find water (page 111). Nearly a century apart in publication, yet both considered relevant to Mars today. It appears that the Mars Society, The Surface of Mars and The Case for Mars have joined with their predecessors to become part of the mega-text about Martian exploration, as ‘most science-fiction novelists in the 1990s have jumped on the Mars Direct Bandwagon […] and a detailed secondary literature has begun to be developed’,[23] such as Expedition Mars (2004) and Marswalk One: First Step on a New Planet (2005) both of which detail the science and engineering of landing on Mars. This is significant because it means an expanding range of resources for SF writers to draw from, a growth of the secondary mega-text to Mars literature. It means, though, that writers referencing these works will continue to structure their narratives under a set of pre-determined scientific parameters. Science must invariably dictate at least a portion of the plot, which could be argued as true for all so-called hard SF.

Two novels that do not spend many words on the scientific history of Mars are Beachhead and Mars Crossing. The former merited only mentioning the Viking Landers (p. 71) and Mariner 9 probe (p. 113) one time each. While it is indeed the author’s prerogative to ignore a literary and scientific history when writing SF, Williamson (and/or his editor) misdate Asaph Hall’s discovery of the moons of Mars, marking it as 1977[24] instead of 1877. This contributes to the sense of Beachhead as being rather disconnected from the present world. NASA is not even mentioned, but instead an imagined multi-national ‘Mars Authority’ coordinates the mission. Landis at least acknowledges NASA as a force behind Mars exploration (in addition to setting some of the training on the International Space Station) and dedicates three pages of part six to looking around the Pathfinder’s landing site of Ares Vallis, one astronaut recalling that ‘As a kid, he’d spent whole days downloading the pictures of this place from the internet; it was when he’d first become interested in Mars.’[25] However, that is the extent of Landis’s reflections up actual history. He references Lowell only once, when an instructor on Earth claims to be ‘a heretic, an old-fashioned Percival Lowell who just refuses to see the evidence’[26] when he claims there has to have been life on Mars once. It is difficult to decide whether Lowell should even be categorised with the scientific or literary history of Mars, simply because his ideas were a fiction based upon blurry observations, and his greatest contribution was perhaps to the inspiration of science fiction writers for the next half century. Old literary Mars is difficult for these authors to detach themselves from, and continues to influence modern narratives.

Bova’s characters may not reflect so much upon the literary history in Mars, but the author himself acknowledges his thanks to Burroughs, Weinbaum and Bradbury; ‘The different versions of Mars that they wrote about exist only in the imagination – but that is more than enough.’[27] Bova dwells the least upon literary Mars when compared to his contemporaries, as if trying to distance himself and his more serious work from whimsical Barsoom. Lowell, though, is given a little more credit in Return to Mars when the astronauts are discussing microbes living within water-bearing boulders, which are slowly drying out: ‘It’s just like Lowell said – this planet is dying.’ Lowell having been largely discredited for his canal theory, the character qualifies this hypothesis a few sentences later: ‘Lowell’s canals were mostly eyestrain and optical illusion. But his basic idea was that Mars was losing its air and water, the whole planet was dying’.[28] To say that a planet is dying is indicative of the belief that Mars was once alive, an assumption still unverified at this point in history. Lowell’s pseudo-scientific theories have remained fixed within the Mars mega-text because his ideas were so prevalent in the founding texts, and he has not been proved entirely wrong in his ideas thus far.

Williamson utilised very little in the way of literary references. His main character comments that when he was young he read ‘Heinlein[…]. A story about the red planet. I wanted to go there’[29] which provides a realistic motivator, and upon finally reaching the planet, he greets it ‘Hello Barsoom!’[30] (With no explanation for this comment, this indicates an assumption by Williamson that his readers would already be familiar with the works of Burroughs.) But there is no further reflection upon the literary Mars, and John Clute comments that although Beachhead ‘describes an expedition to a Mars according to contemporary knowledge, […] the plot itself is redolent of a much earlier era.’[31] This is an interesting observation, because it indicates an assumption that new tales of Mars must have a narrative updated from more classical tropes, and yet the older fictions continue to shape some of the narrative despite the new scientific data. Beachhead fits less securely into the mega-text of new Mars exploration than any of the other novels from this period, because it is entirely too mired in the Barsoom-ish vision of a great Mars with ‘crystal city domes shining in the dark.’[32] Writer who followed Williamson employed less poetically imperial visages in an attempt to maintain the scientific verisimilitude, but the literature still plays an influential intertextual role.

Ray Bradbury’s work is not commonly mentioned among these texts, but in The Martian Race the astronauts ‘talked about Ray Bradbury’s sand ships, tried to imagine skimming over the undulating landscape.’[33] They even watch the film version of The Martian Chronicles, along with several other Hollywood productions such as Mars Attacks! And Mission to Mars, described as ‘good for laughs’,[34] which keeps readers aware of the more sordid film history of Mars. Later there is a fear of Martian microbes reaching Earth, spurring a less-than logical response; ‘They cited Ray Bradbury, whose fictional Martians died from earthly diseases. That it was fiction was a fine point they didn’t appreciate.’[35] (This is followed by references to ‘The Andromeda strain, the Triffids, various evolved Martians, and lots of squishy aliens’.[36]) Reflecting an interesting dichotomy, they reference inspirational science fiction, to reinforce the ambitions of newer science fiction to push for an expedition to Mars, while at the same time using a derisive tone when SF is employed to argue against the expansion of scientific exploration. To borrow from another science fiction author, as there is no more succinct term, this is an interesting case of ‘double-think.’

Burroughs is quoted most often in First Landing, as if Zubrin is single-handedly trying to resurrect the Barsoom series, and credits Lowell with spawning the field of Mars literature and exploration. Copies of the Barsoom books are brought along, and two of the characters address each other as ‘My princess’ and ‘My chieftain’[37] in direct reference to Burroughs’s novels. The historian cum astronaut (rather banally) testifies

A century ago one dreamer who led us to Mars was Percival Lowell, a scientist who thought he saw canals spanning this planet, brining water from its poles to a thirsty civilization.
[…]
Perhaps in the future some John Carter from Earth will come here to find love in the eyes of a Dejah Thoris, his beautiful Martian princess. […]
Thank you Lowell, and Burroughs, for bringing us here; thanks to all the dreamers. Humanity owes its new world to you.[38]

It is not a soliloquy that will go down in the annals of literary memory, but it drives home the belief that current (and future) Mars narratives and exploration are derivative of the contributions from Lowell and Burroughs. This novel, and the others, is not intended as a pastiche of Burroughs’s work, but the constant referencing creates an obvious simulacrum of characters and situations, attempting to balance the fiction with the overwhelming science. Instead of gradually moving away from the unscientific portrayals of Mars, from Bova to Zubrin there is a marked increase of invocation of historical texts.

The echo of Lowell and Burroughs which resonates most profoundly in all of these novels is the ‘discovery’ of life on Mars. Every novel uncovers life from the microbial to the arboreal, and evidence from fossils to abandoned ancient cities. The perception is a consensus that life simply has to have evolved on Mars at some point in the last four billion years; even historically ‘As the canal builders retreated into science fiction, the idea of “primitive” life on Mars persisted’.[39] In the simple terms of Zubrin’s biologist upon discovering coccoid bacteria fossils, ‘There was life here once! […] That’s all that counts.’[40] This sentiment is echoed by the other authors/ narratives; in Mars, when the comment is made that the scientists who discover a simple lichen will win the Nobel prize, one responds ‘But what does that matter? Nothing matters now. We have found what we came for! Whatever happens from now on, it does not matter.’[41] The authors cannot conceive of a mission to Mars that does not include the discovery of some evidence of life, as if a Mars devoid of life cannot be interesting or worthwhile in itself. Life is the ultimate justification for reaching out to another planet, and as these authors are pursing an agenda not just to entertain, but to inform and perhaps even influence, they must pass this litmus test in their own fiction.

Though the appearance of Mars in fiction over the last century may have changed from crystal palaces to arid volcano peaks, from egg-laying princesses to coccoid bacteria, the sentiment remains; Mars is the closest planet to Earth that may harbour life. In concocting new narratives of this place, there is a common web of scientific history and information that invariably shapes the environmental setting and even the plot itself is not free from textual history. Authors will read the work of both their forbearers and their contemporaries, and though they reference their common literary past, they do not reference each other’s work, as if it would tarnish their own literary/scientific/political goals. They are all writing alternative (supposedly viable) futures of Mars exploration for the opening decades of the Twenty-first century, crafted by the mega-text of previous scientific and literary aspirations. Time will determine their successful integration into and influence upon the Mars mega-text.

________________________________________________________________

[1] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 270.

[2] Damien Broderick, Reading by Starlight, p. 48.

[3] Gregory Benford, ‘Real Science, Imaginary Worlds’, in The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF, ed. by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (London: Orbit, 1994), p. 15.

[4] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 24.

[5] For evidence of this, just look at such titles as Robert Bly’s The Science in Science Fiction: 83 SF Predictions That Became Scientific Reality; this notes the speculation that formaldehyde detected in Mars’s atmosphere is evidence of methane producing bacteria, thus, proof of life on Mars.

[6] Gwyneth Jones, ‘The icons of science fiction’, in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 169.

[7] Bergreen, The Quest for Mars, pp. 185-6.

[8] Zubrin, The Case for Mars, pp.175-8.

[9] Lambourne, et. al., Close Encounters, p. 113.

[10] Bova, Mars, p.47

[11] Landis, Mars Crossing, p.144.

[12] Bova, Mars, p. 125.

[13] Bova, Mars, p. 287.

[14] Malin Space Science System website. Mars Global Surveyor – Mutch Crater. <http://www.msss.com/mars_images/moc/2006/08/27/&gt;. Accessed 29 June 2008.

[15] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 355.

[16] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 504.

[17] Senator Glenn was 77 years old, aboard the space shuttle Discovery, mission STS-95 (October 29 – November 7, 1998).

[18] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 20.

[19] Benford, The Martian Race, pp. 181-2.

[20] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 259-60.

[21] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 17.

[22] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 54.

[23] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 349.

[24] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 121.

[25] Landis, Mars Crossing, p. 287.

[26] Landis, Mars Crossing, p. 77.

[27] Bova, Mars, p. i.

[28] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 159.

[29] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 24.

[30] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 134.

[31] Clute and Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p. 1330.

[32] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 181.

[33] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 30-1.

[34] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 325.

[35] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 109.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 222.

[38] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 38.

[39] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 150.

[40] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 64.

[41] Bova, Mars, p. 429.

Losing Shakespeare: Memories of Lost Culture in Apocalyptic Fictions

The fact is, Shakespeare was not sectarian; he pleaded nobody’s mission, he stated nobody’s cause. He has written with a view to be a mirror of things as they are; and shows the office of the true poet and literary man, which is to re-create the soul of man as God has created it, and human society as man has made it.
George Dawson (1821-1876), Shakespeare and Other Lectures

(Updated from previous post, “A Bard for the End of the World“)

In one of the more memorable scenes of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder series, Edmund Blackadder, using a time machine, finds himself face to face with Shakespeare, and asks for his autograph. Then he proceeds to assault the Bard of Avon, shouting “That is for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next 400 years! Have you any idea how much suffering you’re going to cause?”[1] After this – and various other historical follies – Blackadder returns to the present to find the world worse off, and must travel into the past once more to put things right. Shakespeare cannot be remembered simply as the inventor of the ballpoint pen. Despite the suffering of countless school children, the world needs William Shakespeare to show us human society.

This paper is not about Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets or life; this is about SHAKESPEARE, the name said and written without any need for introduction or explanation; the noun that invokes a sense of Western civilisation more than all Greek philosophers combined. This is Shakespeare not as subject, but object. To invoke a mental image of the Bard of Avon is to create metaphorical parallels between high art, culture and erudition; one never says ‘Shakespeare is like-‘, but rather ‘Such-and-such is like Shakespeare.’ It is this immovable position as cultural touchstone that makes Shakespeare a reference point for the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic story, allowing us to measure what has remained and what has been lost. If one were to ask a library search engine to find articles linking the terms ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Apocalypse’, the results would be a hundred different views interpreting the apocalypse through Shakespeare. I aim to invert the question: how do we interpret Shakespeare through the spectre of an apocalypse?

Ben Jonson called Shakespeare the “soul of the age”, and then amended “not of an age, but for all time”.[2] It is in this spirit that I examine Shakespeare as one of the theoretical ‘survivors’ of an end-of-civilisation scenario. Curious about the real life implications of preserving Shakespeare in the event of catastrophe, I reached out to other sources to uncover the lengths to which some have gone to preserve – or pervert – Shakespeare as a cultural icon. Dawson’s quote refers to Shakespeare’s recreation of ‘human society as man has made it’, and in the centuries after Shakespeare, the Bard has become an inseparable part of that society he created.

Authors and filmmakers have devised multiple scenarios in which human existence is pushed to the brink of extinction, but they take their culture – and their Shakespeare – with them. I have narrowed these scenarios down to three categories: The Destroyed World, The Departed World, and the Destroyed Word (indicating not a collapse of life, but of letters). And in each of these I have discovered real-world evidence of similar endeavours to preserve Shakespeare in uncertain and desperate times, which adds credence to the authors’ motivations for mentioning Shakespeare (whether they were conscious of them or not) in their works. Shakespeare and the apocalypse have been linked before, as in R. D. Christofides’s study Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early Modern Tragedy to Popular Culture: “We are still obsessed with apocalypses today. Current cultural and political debates often return to the future of the planet… Humans will destroy Earth. Humans will leave Earth. Humans will be annihilated.”[3] Shakespeare’s tragedies often referenced biblical destruction and salvation; now Shakespeare is an object of human destruction and salvation.

Derrida helped to define this sense of historic preservation in his paper “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression” (Diacritics, 1995), which Veronica Hollinger brilliantly incorporated into her article “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”: “What suggests this conjunction of fiction and theory is the striking symmetry between the logic of the Derridean archive and science fiction’s… own temporal logic as a future-oriented genre. Each requires an imaginative commitment to a future that recasts the present as the past.”[4] Humans fret about the end of their existence – personally and culturally – and the cultivation of archives, like the squirrel’s cache of nuts, is meant to hold back the creeping winter of extinction. Popular culture and science fiction have conditioned us to believe that one of these seeds to be stored in our cultural archive is Shakespeare.

Destroying the World

“Can we conceive of ourselves without Shakespeare?”
Harold Bloom, Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human

Humans have imagined the destruction of the earth for as long as there is writing to record it. But after thousands of years of deific causes for the big-‘A’ apocalypse, science revealed a myriad of other methods by which humanity might meet their end.

The cultural significance of Shakespeare –and the need to preserve it – can be seen as far back as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), one of the first science fiction tales to portray a non-biblical apocalypse.  The world is ravaged by a plague in the late twenty-first century, and Lionel Varney records the fall of England and Europe amidst an ever-diminishing sphere of friends and family. Shelley liberally sprinkles Shakespeare and other poetic references throughout the novel, and even as the world is dying, Lionel notes that “Shakespeare… had not lost his influence even at this dread period.”[5] He reflects upon Shakespeare as the ‘“Ut magus,” the wizard to rule our hearts and govern our imaginations’ and removes the audience from their wretched surroundings in favour of ‘scenic delusions’ (p. 317). When he finds himself utterly alone, Lionel sets sail to look for other lands that may hold survivors, he takes with him ‘a few books… Homer and Shakespeare” (p. 354). In Shakespeare is the comfort of imaginative transportation to other pastures, and other tragedies not his own, and the reminder of better times, before the world bid ‘farewell to the arts’ (p. 246).

In the effort to begin the rebuilding of America in the wake of a limited nuclear war in Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s War Day, Shakespeare becomes one of the first points of restoration for a small town in Pennsylvania. The arrival of Britain’s Prince Andrew to tour the recovery efforts spurs a conversation about the formation of a Shakespearian society.  Amidst radiation, pandemics, and famine, the establishment of a Shakespearian society becomes a priority for the return to a sense of normality; this is what Shakespeare means: his presence in daily life is the attempt to reassert a pre-war status quo. Consider the World War II Shakespearian thespian Maurice Evans, who brought Macbeth and The G.I. Hamlet to troops in the Pacific theatre during the war. It was not that the soldiers were familiar with Shakespeare – in fact, nearly none at all had ever seen Shakespeare performed on stage  – but it was what Shakespeare meant, as a familiar, a piece of home, a touchstone with civilisation in an uncivilised location.

Perhaps the most famous example of Shakespeare’s survival in the aftermath of global collapse is David Brin’s novel the Postman, turned into the Kevin Costner-directed (and starring) film of the same name in 1997, with a heavily adapted screenplay by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland. In the original text, Gordon (the eponymous Postman) is indeed an itinerant performer of Shakespeare, delivering Hamlet from the memory of ‘a half-burned fragment’ of the play.[6] But no one in the audience can gainsay Gordon’s performance because they have no point of reference; ‘Shakespeare’ to the survivors is a historical artefact, a symbol of the before frozen in time by memory, but not a living, vibrant subject. To Gordon, the emotions evoked by his performances make him “feel like a charlatan”, a snake oil salesman offering to cure the apocalypse: “his shows brought out grand, submerged hopes in a few of the decent, older people who remembered better days…hope that, to his knowledge, had always fallen through before a weeks or months had passed” (p. 36). It is hard to hold on to Shakespeare when one does not know where the next meal is coming from, but the spark, the need for Shakespeare to remain relevant continues: “[T]he seeds of civilization needed more than goodwill and dreams…to water them” (p. 36). In the film version General Bethlehem (played by Will Patton) orders the Postman’s copy of Shakespeare burned, without the filmmaker’s ever clarifying why: General Bethlehem knows the value of such a rare book in those desperate times, a memento of the past, and destroying it will help to prevent those ‘seeds of civilization’ from sprouting further, disrupting his power.

I contacted the Folger Shakespeare Library and spoke with Dr. Georgianna Ziegler, the Head Reference Librarian, to ask about the Library’s contingencies to save its most precious documents. She stated that all of the First Folios and other important pieces are kept in a vault three stories underground – originally only two until after 9-11 – and that during World War II a significant portion of the Library’s rare materials were removed from Washington DC and sent for safe keeping to Amherst. Natural disasters and nuclear wars are no longer the only cause for concern; terrorism may also reach out to destroy not just human life, but cultural life as well. Hollinger’s premise for examining the idea of the archive through science fiction is about folding time in on itself: “science fiction [the future] historicizes the present.”[7] In our own present we see attempts by the past to preserve itself, and so emulate their efforts, preserving them and ourselves against an ever-changing world of threat. Our fictions, in turn, follow the same logical trajectory.

Departing the World

There is another kind of apocalypse, one that does not necessarily present its full horror to readers because the protagonists have been removed from it; it is the refugee’s tale, those that have left earth behind, and Shakespeare is among their last connection to the planet.

Jill Patton Walsh’s 1982 novella for young adults, The Green Book, follows a small group of colonists fleeing earth before an unidentified disaster destroys it, and they go on to settle on an alien world. Besides their various trials and tribulations, literature is a key subplot, or specifically, the lack thereof, as each person was only permitted to bring one book, and the adults find themselves rapidly losing the memory of their cultural heritage, unable to retell to their children the stories on which they grew up. The Guide laments, “Not one Shakespeare… Among us all, not one”, and they spend the evening trying to recall Hamlet. The Green Book is written for children, readers who probably only know of Shakespeare as a name, but not the works themselves. Walsh, as an adult, knows better, though, and through her story is subtly conditioning children to understand that Shakespeare is important to their lives and is not something to be left behind forever.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy transports the Bard to our neighbouring planet as it is colonised by humans from all over the earth, yet Shakespeare is a cultural constant for all of them. The Odessa troupe travels the planet, putting on plays, including Titus Andronicus and King Lear, and Maya, one of the first settlers on Mars, criticises a young man for preferring the Restoration version of Lear: “Stupid child! We have told the truth tonight, that is what is important!” Keeping alive Shakespeare in his original form is important to Maya and the older settlers, the Shakespeare – unhappy endings and all – from their unhappy Earth. A young, happy Mars may want a happier Shakespeare, but it is a dishonest form of the Bard. For Nirgal, who was born on Mars, Shakespeare is one of his connections to his forbearers’ history. He grows up watching productions of Shakespeare, understanding the language, and yet when he finally visits earth in Blue Mars, an earth drowned by global warming, he find himself in Britain among people very difficult to understand: “Shakespeare’s plays had not prepared him for it.” For Nirgal, coming from another world, he believes the words of Shakespeare, having originated on earth, in England, should be universal. Time and language have moved on, and for the people of a foundering world, there is no time for Shakespeare; he is preserved on Mars now, not just in books but actively on stage.

The colonial ark ship Godspeed in Beth Revis’s Across the Universe trilogy also carries Shakespeare with them: “The Bard wrote about star-crossed love, but I doubt he ever realized his works would one day be soaring through the stars” one of the characters notes. Looking over Romeo and Juliet, then looking at a ship-bound populace that reproduces only during an artificially induced ‘season’, the narrator wonders “How can I argue that Romeo and Juliet doesn’t really show love to a group of people who have no concept of what  love really is?”[8] To take Shakespeare from one planet to another, to ensure his survival along with humanity’s, is to serve as a reminder of what it means to be human. A copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets becomes a vital clue to the mystery surrounding the ship. Why use Shakespeare? Because what other work would one be certain was to survive removal from earth across three light years?

This is not without parallel in history; Alexis de Tocqueville noted the popularity of Shakespeare across America in the 1830s: “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” Shakespeare was brought to the US by colonists a century before, a reminder of their English roots and literary heritage. Similarly, Shakespeare found his way in the hands of British colonials to nearly every continent, shared around, translated, becoming a nearly universal symbol of humanity and the human condition. In the same way, science fiction sends its colonists into space, escaping a dying earth, with copies of the Bard.

Destroying the Word

A third type of apocalypse is not the destruction of the world, but culture as we know it, an apocalypse of art, literature, and history (what E.D. Hirsch, Jr. called “Cultural Literacy”). Dystopias are often examples of this fear, that the past we know might be erased, intentionally or inadvertently, and those treasures we hold up as the prizes of civilisation will fade away. Hollinger brings this to mind in her analysis of The Time Machine, when future humanity has no knowledge or point of reference for the archives contained in the Palace of Green Porcelain: “Only the Time Traveller, a stand-in for the implied late nineteenth-century reader, is present to acknowledge what has been lost of human history and culture.”[9] The reader of these science fiction dystopias in which the words of Shakespeare have lost their meaning.

Perhaps one of the most influential works on twentieth century dystopia is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We, a story of a highly technological and rigidly controlled society whose inhabitants have no names, only numbers. D-503, the mathematician and engineer, states “Thank goodness…the antediluvian times of all those Shakespeares and Dostoevskys, or whatever you call them, are over.”[10] There is no direct knowledge of Shakespeare beyond his historical, poetic existence; he exists in this world only as an object of contempt. R-13, a ‘poet’ for the OneState who writes death sentences in verse, responds enthusiastically: “Yes, my dear mathematician… We are the happiest of arithmetical means… As you people put it: integrated from zero to infinity, from the cretic to Shakespeare. Right!” (p. 43). There can be no Shakespeare in the OneState because he would fall beyond standard deviation of averaged accomplishment; neither the moron nor the genius can be permitted to live, and so all great literature must be stripped from society to maintain the mean.

In Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) it is intended to be the supreme irony that John the Savage, raised in the uncivilised zone of the Reservation, is the only character familiar with Shakespeare’s work. A world without Shakespeare is crushing for him, and no so-called civilisation in which he can tolerate living. Mustapha Mond, the Controller of the World State, has read Shakespeare – only as his rank permits, since the Bard is forbidden. Why: “Because it’s old… we haven’t any use for old things here.”[11] Like the colonists aboard Revis’s Godspeed, procreation is controlled by the state, and John’s attempt to share Romeo and Juliet with Helmholtz is a disaster, the latter laughing as he deems the play a “grotesque obscenity” (p. 187) with a “ridiculous, mad” premise (p. 188). When John and Helmholtz question Mond about writing something ‘new’ like Othello, the Controller states that such a production would be impossible to understand in the World State: “you can’t make tragedies without social instability” (226). Shakespeare is laid upon the sacrificial altar of progress, and with him, all those positive human values and emotions he expressed: love, romance, loyalty, bravery, etc.

The most recognisable imitation of Zamyatin’s We is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Not as far removed from the present as Zamyatin, Shakespeare plays a more recognisable part. Syme, the Newspeak philologist, tells Winston in a (disturbingly) gleeful moment that “The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be.”[12] Orwell is to be bastardised by Big Brother’s regime, turned against himself; not merely lost, but corrupted beyond recognition. Appendix C states that “when the task [of translation] had been completed, their original writings, with all else that survived of the literature of the past, would be destroyed” (p. 256). Which is the more desperate scenario: the Shakespeare lost to catastrophe, or the Shakespeare deliberately perverted? Orwell’s novel carries many messages about resisting the totalitarian state, the state that would morph your very language and thought process, and the use of Shakespeare as an example of this process – writing that should be more well-known than perhaps any other – is a deliberate metaphor for how deep the corruption of language and history goes.

Our history is rife with the banning of Shakespeare, from the Puritans to modern schools and libraries. These dystopias forbidding the reading the reading of his works are hyperboles with more than a grain – perhaps a bushel – of truth. Banning Shakespeare inherently gives Shakespeare cultural (and political) power, because there is no need to forbid something that is not a threat. Hitler knew that banning Shakespeare outright would not be effective, and instead appropriated and Nazi-ised the plays for political ends. Rodney Symington has written an entire book on the subject, The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (2005). After Hitler’s ascension to power, a pamphlet called “Shakespeare – A German Writer” appeared, appropriating Shakespeare as a more German writer than English writer, and Hitler himself lifted the ban on performances of Shakespeare during the war.[13]

Conclusion

Modern literature is rife with images of Shakespeare, turning the Bard and his works into pop-culture products, and it is this status of global, popular culture, that inspires these various tales of apocalypse to integrate Shakespeare into their texts as a metaphor for better days. Shakespeare himself grew up in an age of cultural destruction as the reformation swept England. Christofides notes that “Not only did many… Catholic images survive the seal of sixteenth-century Protestant iconoclasts, they also held a firm place in the collective memory of local communities… Most of this iconography was destroyed as part of Reformation decrees to obliterate idolatrous imagery.”[14] Attempted destruction of centuries of cultural icons failed in Shakespeare’s time, and science fiction writers today envision a Shakespeare not so easily erased after all his centuries among us. No one ever suggests saving Jennifer Lee Carrol’s Interred with Their Bones from the ravages of radiation, nor do they invoke Gary Blackwood’s Shakespeare Stealer as a symbol for lost greatness; but the source must be persevered to ensure that new cultural products inspired by Shakespeare might reknit society. In all of these examples, we never question why Shakespeare is present; to us it seems an obvious artefact. If the authors had elected instead to add, say, the canon of Tom Clancy or Stephanie Meyer, we would have instantly been flung out of the pretense of fiction and asked ourselves ‘Why in the world would someone take Twilight to another planet, and not The Tempest?’ There is an expectation that in the face of disaster and displacement we will save our most popular cultural icons, an expectation that seems reinforced by the real world examples cited.

Works Cited

Brin, David. The Postman (New York: Bantam, 1985).
Christofides, R.M. Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early modern Tragedies to Popular Culture (London: Continuum, 2012).
Heschel, Susanna.  “The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (review), Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 38, no. 2 (Autumn, 2007), pp. 290-291.
Hollinger, Veronica. “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, Parabolas of Science Fiction, eds. Brian Attebery and Veronica Hollinger (Middletown, CT: 2013).
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World (New York: HarperPerennial, 1932).
Orwell, George. 1984 (New York: Signet Classic, 1949).
Pinciss, Gerald M. Why Shakespeare: An Introduction to the Playwright’s Art (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005).
Revis, Beth. A Million Suns (New York: Razorbill, 2012).
Shelley, Mary. The Last Man (London: Flame Tree 541, 2013, based on the 1826 text).
Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We, trans. Clarence Brown (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).

 

[1] Blackadder Back & Forth. Dir. Paul Weiland. First aired 6 December 1999.

[2] Gerald M. Pinciss, Why Shakespeare: An Introduction to the Playwright’s Art (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), p. 158.

[3] R.M. Christofides, Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early Modern Tragedies to Popular Culture (London: Continuum , 2012), pp. xii-xiii.

[4] Veronica Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, Parabolas of Science Fiction, eds. Brian Attebery and Veronica Hollinger (Middletown, CT: 2013), p. 242.

[5] Mary Shelley, The Last Man (London: Flame Tree 541, 2013, based on the 1826 text), pp. 216-7. All other citations in text.

[6] David Brin, The Postman (New York: Bantam, 1985), p. 35.

[7] Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, p. 243.

[8] Beth Revis, A Million Suns (New York: Razorbill, 2012), p. 37.

[9] Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, p. 244.

[10] Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, trans. Clarence Brown (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 43.

[11] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: HarperPerennial, 1932), p. 225. All other citations in-text.

[12] George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet Classic, 1949), p. 47.

[13] Susanna Heschel, “The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (review), Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 38, no. 2 (Autumn, 2007), pp. 290-291.

[14] Christofides, Shakespeare and the Apocalypse, p. xiii.

The (In)Cedible Sherlock Holmes: Ironic Belief and the Metanarrative of the Modern Pastiche

When Sherlock Holmes made his debut on the stage of late-Victorian London he was a figure distinctly born of his day – and still is, though in an ever-expanding literary universe of his peers. Arthur Conan Doyle kept the world of Sherlock Holmes quite separate from most of the individuals and events of his era; he believed his tales to be ‘distraction from the worries of life’ that existed in ‘the fairy kingdom of romance’ (Doyle, 2004: 249). Sherlock existed in a recognisable fin de siècle London, but he did not rub shoulders with celebrities like Oscar Wilde, or criminals like Jack the Ripper, figures we know to have existed in the same space-time continuum. Copyright prevented Sherlock from hunting Dr. Jekyll or joining Van Helsing. In the last century, though, as Sherlock-inspired literature has flooded the market, the greatest detective in the world has become something else: a literary spirit guide to characters – both factual and fictional – of the Victorian and Edwardian chronotope (Cawthorne, 2011: vii).

Exactly how we approach this fusion of worlds and characters is best described by Michael Saler’s idea of the ‘ironic believer’,1 those ‘who were not so much willingly suspending their disbelief in a fictional character as willingly believing in him with the double-minded awareness that they were engaged in pretence’ (Saler, 2003: 606) – a form of complicit Orwellian doublethink without the sinister implications. In this context, Saler was referring to contemporary readers of the Holmes stories, but this same idea of ‘double-minded awareness’ still applies to the modern readers of Holmesian pastiches. Dr. Freud never mentioned working with a British detective in his notes; Queen Victoria’s secretaries never recorded a visit with a Mr. Sherlock Holmes; and yet, these are perfectly natural figures to appear in new cases because they would surely have met Holmes had he been real. There is little need to stretch the imagination into accepting these meetings, and it was merely an act of discretion that kept Watson from making these cases public sooner. Writers wishing to engage Holmes with his other fictional contemporaries require a slightly different approach. In wanting Holmes to be real – even if we are fully aware that he is not – steps must be taken to submerge our imaginations into a unified world where Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, Doyle and Stoker could be manifested. There must also be a reason for Conan Doyle/Watson to never have related these adventures before now either.

To this end, not all but many2 of the Holmes pastiches published in the last four decades have followed a two-fold reader-immersion process to satisfy the ironic believer: 1) in a preface, the author relegates the self to ‘editor’ of the found manuscript, and 2) Watson must explain the reason for narrative discrepancies (i.e. why did Robert Louis Stevenson never mention Sherlock Holmes in his account of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?), and present the ‘true’ story to the reader, who has now had their reasons to disbelieve assuaged. A new literary world is created in these two types of stories, one in which Holmes is ‘real’, and so are his contemporaries. Umberto Eco describes the need for ‘a completely furnished world’ in order to transformation of a much-loved cultural object into a ‘cult object’ so that ‘fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world.’ This is not enough, though, as fans must also be free ‘to break, dislocate, unhinge’ (Eco, 1986: 197-8) this created world, allowing them to explore it, to expand it, to reshape it according to their own designs and understandings of the world. Thus, we can take almost the whole of fin de siècle writing, then, and fold it into a universe where Sherlock Holmes is both the centre and the gatekeeper. As readers of these new Sherlock productions, we ‘believe’ – with mental tongue in cheek – that the Watson telling the story of Sherlock Holmes’s encounter with Jack the Ripper is the same Watson who told us about Sherlock Holmes’s encounter with the Baskerville hound. Each of these must be unified in the same man for readers intellectually, or else there is no consistency and no reason to believe.

With that caveat, it must be stated that there are several forms of Sherlock Holmes that do not fit under this study, such as the animated show Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (1999-2001) or the Young Sherlock Holmes series by Andrew Lane, which remove the character from his recognisable fin de siècle temporal situation. Sherlock Holmes does not aid MI6 in the Cold War; he does not wax despairingly on nuclear weapons; he does not eye the moon landing with his traditional indifference toward non-criminal trivialities; and Dr Watson is not a robot. These uses of Holmes break the reader’s faith in the author’s in situ world-building. For all of the flexibility extended to these novels in terms of literary and historical characterisation, there are in place some firm boundaries to the time and space of Holmes and Watson.

 

The First Believers

The reason Sherlock Holmes can be written as a semi-corporeal figure of history is because of the uniqueness of his status as ‘the first character in modern literature to be widely treated as if he were real and his creator fictitious’ (Saler, 2003: 600). Even while Conan Doyle was still alive others were taking up the pen to write their own Holmes mysteries for print and stage. Readers in London wore black armbands to mourn the death of Sherlock Holmes after the publication of ‘The Final Problem’. The character captured the imagination of the country, who viewed him as a man no different from themselves but for his preternatural cleverness. The stage actor William Gillette created the iconic image of a lean man in a deerstalker cap with a calabash pipe (not exactly how Conan Doyle wrote Holmes, but a convenient stage persona). Doyle cared so little for his creation that when Gillette wrote to Doyle asking permission to write his own plays for the character, Doyle responded ‘You may marry or murder or do what you like with him’ (Davies, 2001: 15). However, even Doyle himself acknowledged that it was Gillette who ‘changed a creature of thin air into an absolutely convincing human being’ (Green, 1983: 293). It is this willingness on Doyle’s part to relinquish his creation to the public sphere and give Holmes an avatar in Gillette which contributed to Holmes becoming such a well-known figure. Spreading Holmes beyond the confines of the Strand also gave him a greater presence in society, contributing to the belief that such a man could be real. Scholarly studies, articles and biographies filled in some of the gaps that Doyle left, carefully researched pieces that kept Holmes and Watson within the plausible world.

Many of these extended creations tried to work within the canon established by Conan Doyle; his own son, Adrian, and mystery writer John Dickson Carr, wrote a collection of short stories, The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1952), based upon the ‘unwritten’ cases. The end of each story is accompanied by a small clue from the canonical piece that inspired the story: ‘Among those unfinished tales is that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.’ This is a line from the short story ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge’, which led to Conan Doyle the Younger (and Carr) to write ‘The Highgate Miracle’, filling in this piece of back-story, a throw-away line fleshing out Holmes’s life, to be picked up later.

Other ostensibly ‘non-fiction’ pieces tried to accomplish the same world-building, such as William Baring-Gould’s Mr. Holmes of Baker Street (1962), which provided an entire history of Holmes, dating not just his canonical adventures, but the Adrian Conan Doyle/Carr tales and the theoretical family history of Holmes and Watson speculated upon by other writers of Sherlockiana. Many modern writers offer thanks to Baring-Gould and other Sherlockian scholars for their assiduous research, which help to maintain consistency in their own stories.3 Constancy is part of playing The Game of believing in Sherlock Holmes. Starting decades ago, and continued to the present, we find an assiduous cognition on the part of many authors that they are trespassing in an orchard not theirs, but nonetheless one in which they still hope to cultivate their own seedlings that will bear a fruit indistinguishable from the old trees. Consider the subtitle to Ernest B. Zeisler’s Baker Street Chronology: ‘Commentaries on the Sacred Writings of Dr. John H. Watson’ (1953); ‘Sacred’ is a very leading word choice, indicating a sacrosanct status of the canonical works, attributed not to Conan Doyle, but to Watson. These are not writing to be shoddily handled, but brought to life via the ‘love’ Eco stresses. The ‘ironic believer’ loves Holmes enough to play ‘The Game’ of pretending he is real, and stretching their imaginations to encompass both Conan Doyle’s canon and the works of Sherlockain scholars. All of this is enough to generate the ‘naïve believer’ who cannot distinguish between the fact and fiction of Holmes’s world.

The last quarter of the twentieth century, though, saw a change in this Sherlockian literary philosophy of not straying far beyond the canon, not the least of which can be credited to the handing off of the Conan Doyle estate from Adrian to his sister Jean in 1970 (who was far more lenient in allowing others to use her father’s work) and the gradual expiration of copyright on Sherlock Holmes, and, importantly, of other literary works. Holmes was no longer restricted to his own literary history, but was being given the opportunity to interact with history itself. The expansion of Holmes into the larger fin de siècle world was underway.

 

Sherlock + Historical Figures

The significance of this era can be seen in recent collections like Encounters of Sherlock Holmes (2013) edited by George Mann and Professor Moriarty: Hound of the D’Urbervilles (2011) by Kim Newman, which deliberately set out to bring fictional entities into the semi-real world of Holmes, and to fictionalise real individuals in the same setting. This is part of a pattern that has emerged since the 1974 publication of Nicholas Meyer’s international bestseller The Seven-per-cent Solution: the synthesis of the literary Sherlock Holmes with contemporary figures known to us in our own history. In the first of Meyer’s pastiches, Dr Watson and Dr Sigmund Freud conspire to cure Holmes of his cocaine addiction. A dumbfounded ‘What?’ is likely to be the reader’s initial reaction. What does it mean that Sherlock Holmes, a product of fiction for all intents and purposes, knew Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology? Here we have two worlds colliding: Freud is being given a fictional life, and at the same time, Holmes is being pulled closer to our reality. There was even a letter sent to 221b Baker Street, inquiring as to the veracity of The Seven-per-cent Solution, to which the Abbey National Building Society (residents of that address as the time) responded quite simply: ‘Mr. Holmes has asked me to write to you with the information that The Seven-per-cent Solution is based on other stories and thus is authentic in one sense’ (Green, 1985: 231). Meyer’s work is being given authenticity ‘in one sense’ by the read secretaries assigned to answer the real letters sent to a fictional character at a real address. How does a man, a character, wrapped in their own solipsism, ever attain more reality than that? Even Dr John H. Watson has an author page on Amazon.com with over seventy titles accredited to him, giving him a digital existence; this is more than most (real) authors can claim. Despite modern creativity, though, the possibility of this continued existence goes back to the creator.

Conan Doyle cultivated a fertile field in which others could cavort with Holmes and Watson, leaving scattered clue for others to pick up on; ‘the giant rat of Sumatra’ and ‘the singular case of the aluminium crutch’, for example, remained behind after Conan Doyle died, and later writers could solve these cases to the best of their imaginations. This also allowed Watson the opportunity to leave behind ‘unpublished manuscripts’ (most in a tin box at Cox’s Bank) that others might find, edit, and publish themselves. Playing on the idea that Holmes was as real as his creator, and that Conan Doyle was only half of a literary team (Watson being the other half) then those works not passed on by Watson to his literary agent Conan Doyle are free to be ‘discovered’. Where the original stories employed no framing technique and simply launched into Watson’s narrative with a scene-setting paragraph, many of the modern novels must provide us with a frame that includes introductions by our so-called editors explaining how they came into possession of a Watsonian original. Watson himself must also leave us an explanation as to why these cases were not published after he recorded them. All of this is to engage the senses of the ironic believer: we know that it is not true, but we and the author engage in a game of mutual credulity. The author is taking Conan Doyle’s place, not necessarily as author, but as agent.

Meyer begins The Seven-per-cent Solution with a telling subtitle: ‘Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. / as edited by Nicholas Meyer.’ Meyer has disavowed himself of being the author of anything except the Forward and footnotes that permeate the tale and occasionally remove us from the nineteenth century and move us into twentieth century speculation. Meyer’s forward starts by addressing possible reader incredulity: ‘The discovery of an unpublished manuscript by John H. Watson may well engender in the world of letters as much scepticism as surprise. It is easier to conceive of the unearthing of one more Dead Sea Scroll than yet another text from the hand of that indefatigable biographer’ (Meyer, 1974: 9). He gives a history of the discovery of this manuscript, the efforts made to test its veracity, and his work at editing it for publication. The footnotes give either background to Sherlockian history (addressing references to other cases) or are Meyer engaging in speculation on the reader’s behalf: ‘Does this declaration suggest a reason why Watson never mentions his children, not even to state that he fathered any? N.M.’(Meyer, 1974: 121). Watson himself goes on to address readers and his reasons being persuaded that his particular tale ‘should never see the literary light of day’ (Meyer, 1974: 15). It is a two-step approach to fully submerge us into the universe controlled by Sherlock Holmes, one which continues to be emulated by other authors.

Meyer went on to pen two more novels, following his same pattern of two-fold immersion via editorial Forward and Watsonian Introduction: The West End Horror (1976) in which Holmes and Watson team with George Bernard Shaw to solve a series of murders linked to the West End stages, roping in additional cast in the likes of Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Gilbert and Sullivan. There are more ‘real’ characters among the cast than fictional. The Canary Trainer (1993) does something even more interesting: while Holmes is playing dead after ‘The Final Problem’, he becomes a violinist in Paris under the name Sigerson (something alluded to upon his return to London and literature in ‘The Empty House’) charged by Irene Adler with protecting one Christine Daaé from a certain Phantom of the Paris Opera, whore the orchestra is under the conduction of none other than Gaston Leroux. Now we have both the historical figure and his fictional creations coalescing in the Holmes metaverse. There is nothing supernatural to this Phantom, nothing that lies outside the realm of plausible: Meyer must rationalise every act, every trick, even if we know that Gaston Leroux is real, and his characters are not. If Gaston Leroux is real, but Leroux is appearing via the narrative portal of Sherlock Holmes, then there is a sense of reality bestowed upon the latter as the narrator of a portion of Leroux’s life and the inspiration for his most famous work.

A year after The Canary Trainer Sam Siciliano would follow with his own take on Leroux’s characters encountering Holmes, publishing The Angel of the Opera (1994), ‘written’ not by Watson, but Holmes’s cousin Dr Henry Vernier, whose Preface indicates a need to present readers with a Holmes that is ‘much more interesting’ and ‘much deeper’ (Siciliano, 1994: 7) than Watson’s stories ever revealed. This is excusing Siciliano’s deviations from the Watsonian perspective and canonical interpretation of Holmes’s character, while allowing for the fusion of two fictions. It is also set in the period of Holmes’s ‘absence’ following the Reichenbach Falls incident, but as Dr Vernier frames the story, Watson was angry with Holmes and a ‘major row separated them for several years. Watson was so angry that he promptly invented Moriarty and killed off my cousin’ (Siciliano, 1994: 8). Another explanation for Moriarty, Holmes’s apparent death, and how Holmes filled the intervening time. ‘The Final Problem’ is possibly one of the greatest (unintentional) gifts that Conan Doyle gave to fans of Sherlock Holmes and their Game.

Now that Meyer had provided a (highly successful) precedence for this intertwining of the historical and fictional, there was no stopping the not hundreds, but thousands, of pastiches that followed suit. ‘Pastiche’ may not always be the right word, however, as even a century ago, there was an objection raised to Sherlockian enthusiast Vincent Starrett that using the word ‘pastiche’ because it ‘has a derogatory sense, one of caricature’ (Starrett, 1968: 198) – and Sherlock Holmes is not to be reduced to a mere caricature in the eyes of the believer. Calling these neo-Holmesian stories ‘imitations’, though, would be also be a somewhat inaccurate designation: many are extension in an ever-expanding universe that has formed around one character of immense plausibility. In a Publisher’s Weekly cover story on the resurgence of Holmes in the last decade, there is a discussion with Sherlockian enthusiast Otto Penzler, who estimates that ‘more than half of recent published works put Holmes into conflict with vampires, werewolves, supervillains, and in futuristic settings’ (Picker, 2010: 19). These ‘genre bending’ works violate the traditional canon and the self-contained world of realism that attracted early followers, who considered Holmes to be as real as – or more real than – Doyle himself. But with the fictionalisation of so many historical characters to incorporate them into the universe of Holmes, it has become a more common practice to add some weight of reality to fictional characters, even those that occupy the boarders of the fantastic.

There are several other ‘historical’ fictions that feature Sherlock Holmes. The Stalwart Companions (1978) by H. Paul Jeffers revels in nearly twenty pages of authorial framing to set up an adventure between Holmes and future US president Theodore Roosevelt, steeped in so much historical research Jeffers provides footnotes for readers as Meyer did. Daniel Stashower’s The Ectoplasmic Man (1985) is a found-manuscript about Holmes’s case with Harry Houdini, a real-life friend of Conan Doyle, until they had a falling out over the latter’s spiritualist beliefs. In his ‘Editor’s Forward’ Stashower continues to play the ironic believer’s game with his readers, mentioning ‘that contemptible faction that insists Sherlock Holmes existed only in the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. They are a spurious lot, surely’ (Stashower, 1985: 13). Following the two-fold immersion, there is then the ‘Author’s Forward’ in which Watson confesses to not publishing the account because ‘Houdini, always secretive concerning the details of his private life, forbade me to write of the matter within his lifetime’ (Stashower, 1985: 17-8). For the uninitiated ‘naive believer’ in Sherlock Holmes, it is possible to continue naively believing that Holmes may have indeed interacted with these figures of his chronotope; but it takes the ‘ironic believer’ to move with Holmes into the realm of his fictional contemporaries.

 

Sherlock + Fictional Characters

These novels, which combine Holmes with his literary contemporaries, are more likely to fall under that category of ‘pastiche’ as Conan Doyle’s creation must blend with another author’s. In the use of historical figures, the reason for excluding Holmes from their history is usually of one of discretion on the part of the detective and his chronicler toward the client. However, the approach to literary figures of history via the portal of Sherlock Holmes is addressed in two paths: one is a route tempered by the balm of sympathetic understanding on Watson’s part to the real authors’ predicaments of relating tales seemingly too fantastic for belief; the other, on the reverse, is the charge of deliberate falsification of the facts on the part of the ‘original’ author. As an example of the first, Loren D. Estleman’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes (1979) uses Watson’s preface to state that

Holmes’s admonition to ‘be kind to Stevenson’ was unnecessary. Although it is true that Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of the singular circumstances surrounding the murder of Sir Danvers Carew contains numerous omissions, it is just as true that discretion, and not slovenliness, obliged him to withhold certain facts and to publish The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde under the guise of fiction. Victorian society simply would not have accepted it in any other form. (Estleman, 1979: 21)

This is the reverse of the track Estleman uses in Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula: or, The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count (1978). Watson also starts out by addressing the world of fiction which crosses into Sherlock’s world:

Before I begin my narrative, I feel that it is my duty to set the reader straight upon a number of erroneous statements made recently regarding the events therein described. I refer in particular to a surprising monograph which has enjoyed a certain amount of popularity since it first appeared some four months ago, authored by an Irishman by the name of Bram Stoker, and entitled Dracula.

…Although Holmes does not agree, it is my belief that Professor Van Helsing induced Stoker to deliberately falsify the facts where our line of investigation transacted his, in order to build up his own reputation as a supernatural detective, and to invent entire episodes to explain the discrepancies. (Estleman, 1978: 15)

Playing into the reader’s role of the ironic believer, it is not enough to simply filch a well-known literary character: their creator must be incorporated into the story, acknowledging the very fact of their creation. Discrepancy between original narrative and Watsonian interpretation of events must be accounted for in order to engage us in The Game of being ironic believers. We know Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde, and Dracula – we have for over a hundred years – and Sherlock Holmes never met them until now. ‘Irony’ tells us they are meeting now because copyrights have expired and it makes for an exciting story; ‘Believability’ tells us they are meeting because in a nineteenth century world threatened by vampires and mad scientists, only Sherlock Holmes can save us.

The character of Dracula has appeared in dozens of Holmes pastiches since, but there is an interesting study by Daniel Cottom about these two figures – and their creators – about their representative significance in the fin de siècle. In ‘Sherlock Holmes Meets Dracula’ Cottom asserts

It need hardly be said that Stoker’s and Doyle’s protagonists never literally met, but this is not only because they happen to be fictional. The tales in which they live have incompatible premises, which represent two strains of the Gothic tradition. With Dracula we have an exploitation of otherworldy terrors in the tradition of Horace Walpole and Matthew Lewis, whereas Holmes updates the heritage of Ann Radcliffe, whose works dramatize eerie mysteries that are then all submitted to a rational explanation as her narratives draw to a close. (Cottom, 2012: 537)

Cottom is speaking of these two figures never meeting in their contemporary composition as bohemian products, but does not take into account their present connections. The human mind desires patterns and unity, and that includes fictions. Dracula and Holmes were in the same fictional London at the same time and therefore may have met. Many other authors seem to think so in their own pastiches: Séance for a Vampire (1994) by Fred Saberhagen; Sherlock Holmes and the Plague of Dracula (2007) by Stephen Seitz; and Sherlock Holmes and the Whitechapel Vampire (2012) by Dean P. Turnbloom meshes both the Dracula story and Jack the Ripper.

Dracula is not the only creature of questionable metaphysics Holmes encounters; the Martians of H.G. Wells have inspired more than one author. Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds (1975) sees Holmes, Watson, and Doyle-creation Professor Challenger tackling the Martian invasion. Similar to Estleman’s use of criticism for Stoker, the Wellmans finish their account of extraterrestrial invasion with a letter from Watson to H.G. Wells, stating that the author ‘vastly exaggerated [his] own experiences, resorting sometimes to pure faking’ (Wellman, 1975: 224). Our role as ‘ironic believer’ is not to believe that Martians really came to Victorian England – because surely we would remember such a thing – but to believe that in a universe where, all else being equal, if both Sherlock Holmes and Martians existed, then Holmes would have defended Britain against the invaders. If someone (such as H.G. Wells) were to write a narrative about such an event that did not include the heroic actions of Sherlock Holmes, then they must be taken to task for such an omission and the true story told.

As far as can be discerned in the most popular pastiches (there being over 8000 on record as of 2010, far too many to read in a decade [Picker, 2010: 19]) Holmes does not meet any of his historical/fictional contemporaries that would have frequented Bloomsbury and fallen under the category of Modernist: Conrad and Marlow, Ford and Dowell, James and his Americans, et cetera. Instead, Holmes encounters those creations which occupy the liminalities of the Gothic threat to safety and order. What Cottom is saying (and present writers are unconsciously acknowledging) is that Sherlock Holmes has more in common with the fantastic than the Modernist. Dracula and Mr Hyde are dangerous to others; Marlow and Dowell are only threats to themselves. The existential musings of Modernist men and women unhappy about their world and laden with malaise can already be filled by Holmes when he is not on a case; there is no need for character repetition. Perhaps the inventions of Bloomsbury are too rooted in their own realistic world for even the ironic believer to accept their straying into the gothic world of Holmes.

 

Sherlock + Jack

There is certainly one piece of history that modern writers have tied Sherlock Holmes to more than any other: Jack the Ripper. The Last Sherlock Homes Story, Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, The Whitechapel Horrors…These are just a few of the titles of Sherlock versus Jack. The case of Jack the Ripper occupies a unique space in the historical and fictional spheres of Holmes. The reality of five women murdered in Whitechapel in the autumn 1888 is undisputable; however, to solve the crime, to unmask Jack, must be a fiction. As the most infamous crime of the nineteenth century, it is all too tempting to have England’s most clever detective stop its most infamous criminal. But history tells us that Jack was never brought to justice: now he is not a man but an idea, a series of actions and results, speculations and newspaper articles, but Jack the Ripper can never be real to us in any literary form, or no more real than Sherlock Holmes himself. To pit these two characters against each other requires narrative acrobatics on the part of the author to explain why we have no identity for Jack the Ripper. To bring him to justice (whether Sherlock Holmes was the one to do it, or Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline) would be untrue to history. So how do modern authors navigate this historical and literary synthesis?

Michael Dibdin, in The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978)4 presents us with the traditional frame that has come into use: Watson’s lost manuscript is locked away until decades after his death, a piece never revealed to Arthur Conan Doyle, or ‘ACD’ as Watson refers to him throughout the novel. The ‘Editors’ provide a Forward explaining the discovery of Watson’s narrative, the disagreement about its publication and that some will ‘regret that two of the great mysteries of crime are finally solved, and will seek to discredit the solution’ (Dibdin, 1978: xiii). Dibdin method of uniting these facts and fictions is to cast Sherlock Holmes himself as the schizophrenic killer, as Holmes, Moriarty, and Jack the Ripper, all in one. And who is to say that Holmes was not the Ripper? Jack was never caught. Watson and Holmes – rather than Holmes and Moriarty – fight to the death at the Reichenbach Falls, and only Watson emerges, with a secret he must keep. Conan Doyle, unconcerned with the loss of his literary cash-cow, keeps writing Holmes stories, though there is no more Holmes, and no more input from Watson. Watson quietly goes along with this because he wants his friend to be remembered as ‘the best and wisest man’. Here we have the solution to the Whitechapel murders, an identity in the form of Moriarty generated by the split personality of Holmes, who did indeed die in Switzerland in 1891, the relationship between Watson and Conan Doyle is detailed, and the origin of the stories we know explained. There are no loose ends.

Bernard Schaffer’s Whitechapel (2011) is as much a detailed history of the actual murder investigation as it is a Sherlock Holmes story, using Holmes as a vehicle to explore genuine fact (in all its gory details) in pursuit of an answer. Schaffer sides with those theorists who blame the well-connected Montague Druitt, and it is those connections which keep Watson from publishing his full account with the solution to the murders. Lindsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson (2009) presents a new solution to the crime, that in which it was a police officer assigned to the investigation, but Faye can do this while still remaining within established fact – besides the presence of Sherlock Holmes on the case. All of these tales walk us through one of the most documented crimes in history, using the characters of Holmes and Watson to solve the unsolvable.

Why did Arthur Conan Doyle never discuss Jack with Sherlock and his readers, though? In an essay by Jon Lellenberg that follows Caleb Carr’s Holmesian pastiche The Italian Secretary, Lellenberg hypothesises:

There is a reason why Sherlock Holmes never investigates a series of murders resembling the Jack the Ripper case of 1888, and that Dr Conan Doyle, interested in real-life crime normally, never appears to have studied or discussed it either. Some things are unspeakable except in terms of a psychology that Sherlock Holmes would have shrunk from embracing of his own accord, so repulsive its philosophical implications might have seemed to him. (Lellenberg, 2005: 274)

Theft, fraud, and the occasional homicide inspired by vengeance or inheritance were far more acceptable for Conan Doyle (and Holmes) to contemplate than the unfathomable ruthlessness of a serial killer. In Judith Flanders’s study The Invention of Murder, she notes that while some of Sherlock’s early adventures were quite violent, they turned later to the ‘quirky, even whimsical’ and that this is perhaps why Holmes remained so popular: ‘There was enough blood, enough violence, in Whitechapel’ (Flanders, 2011: 438-9). Holmes can keep away the shadows of danger that haunt the streets (and pages) of late-Victorian London, then and now.

 

Conclusion

Why Sherlock Holmes? Why is he our literary spirit guide to this era? That in itself is an entire PhD thesis, but Cottom makes an interesting insight into the canonical character: ‘In the world as Doyle portrays it, Sherlock Holmes is the only subject who can be supposed to know. No one else can enter into, communicate with, and comprehend all parts of society as he can’ (Cottom, 2012: 559). Pastiche writers of today can move Holmes beyond his self-contained universe and into the realms of history and literature, because if anyone was to know everyone in the fin de siècle (and be able to tell us the truth of them) it would be Sherlock Holmes.

I started out calling Holmes a literary Virgil, guiding us through the contemporary texts and events of Conan Doyle’s time. Type ‘Sherlock Holmes’ into Amazon and you will find scores of Holmes-related texts published every year, feeding this expanding universe. Sometimes we are still permitted to enjoy Holmes for himself – id est, Anthony Horowitz’s recent bestseller The House of Silk (2011) approved by the Conan Doyle estate, and engaging with neither historical or literary characters and remaining contained within the canonical world of Holmes himself. But this is an exception to the published Holmes stories of the last four decades, which have chosen instead to engage not just Holmes, but the whole of the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras as source material to build their narratives. The employment of Holmes in these narratives is not just about telling us a new Sherlock Holmes story: these are about moving Holmes into a wider engagement with history, and at the same time, pulling history into the world of Holmes, building verisimilitude for the potential existence of Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is a figure that has come to permeate so much of our culture (passing the boundaries of pure-fictionality) that it is legitimate to sit back and philosophically consider how real Sherlock Holmes is or may have been. He has become a focal point around which to construct an entirely believable historical universe, walking us through London’s foggy streets and introducing us to both Queen Victoria and Mr Hyde.

 

Notes

  1. As opposed to the ‘naïve believer’, who does not know any better.
  2. There are too many pastiches to be read these days, so for the most part this paper is focused on the Sherlock Holmes novels that come from reputable pens and publishers, rather than tiny presses, ebooks, and print-on-demands. One of the noticeable differences between these types of books is that the more well-known authors and titles engage in The Game of persuading the ‘ironic believer’ via the mentioned techniques.
  3. Lyndsay Faye, Nicholas Meyer, and Laurie R. King are among the best known examples that have used Baring-Gould as inspiration.
  4. For anyone who has not yet read the novel, and wishes to remain safely ignorant of the ending, then consider this your warned: Spoilers Ahead.

Works Cited

Cawthorn, Nigel. A Brief History of Sherlock Holmes (London: Robinson, 2011)

Cottom, Daniel. ‘Sherlock Holmes Meets Dracula’, English Literary History (79, 2012), pp. 537-67

Davies, David Stuart. Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen (London: Titan Books, 2001)

Dibdin, Michael. The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (London: Faber and Faber, 1978)

Doyle, Arthur Conan. His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 2007)

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality (London: Picador, 1986)

Estleman, Loren D. Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula: or, The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count (London: Titan Books, 1978)

—. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes (London: Titan Books, 1979)

Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (London: Harper Press, 2011)

Green, Richard Lancelyn, ed. The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 1983)

—. Letters to Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 1985)

Lellenberg, John. ‘Dr Kreizler, Mr Sherlock Holmes…’, in Caleb Carr, The Italian Secretary (London: Time Warner Books, 2005), pp. 262-75.

Meyer, Nicholas. The Seven-per-cent Solution: Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. / as edited by Nicholas Meyer (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1974)

Picker, Lenny. ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’, Publisher’s Weekly (18 January 2010), pp. 18-9

Saler, Michael. ‘“Clap if You Believe in Sherlock Holmes”: Mass Culture and the Re-Enchantment of Modernity, c. 1890 – c. 1940’. The Historical Journal, 46, 3 (2003), pp. 599-621

Siciliano, Sam. The Angel of the Opera (London: Titan Books, 1994)

Starrett, Vincent. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Pinnacle Books, 1960)

Stashower, Daniel. The Ectoplasmic Man (London, Titan Books, 1985)

Wellman, Manly Wade and Wade Wellman. Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds (London: Titan Books, 1975)

Sketches of the Impossible: Illustrating the Hollow Earth

(From a paper presented at the C19 conference at Penn State, March 19, 2016.)

Subterranean world. Hollow Earth. The Underground. Or my phrase to evoke all of the above, terra cava.

These words precipitate different mental images for different people, but before the nineteenth century, you would have found an almost universal response in the form of Hell, Hades, Dante’s Inferno. Certainly artistic renderings would reinforce this religious/mythic view.

Athanasius Kircher started to shift this paradigm in the seventeenth century, reinforced by Edmond Halley’s – erroneous – mathematical calculations that the earth must be a series of concentric spheres due to a miscalculation of planetary density. The Royal Society did not revisit the topic, though, and it remained one of the more obscure theories of natural philosophy until an unheard of retired American infantry captain sent out this short pamphlet: “To all the world, I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within, containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the Poles…”

John Cleves Symmes Jr, a self-educated trader on the frontiers of St Louis, declared to all the world (that being mostly newspapers and universities in American and Britain) that the earth was hollow and habitable within and just waiting for brave Americans to plant the stars and stripes on entirely new continents. Because Symmes and his theory are relegated to the footnotes of history, it’s easy to dismiss as a minor philosophical fad. But we have the newspapers and magazine articles, novels and serials, to prove otherwise. What Symmes started far outlives his own death in 1829, and a significant part of that success stems from the imagery employed to covey what words could not. Why is this imagery important? Peter Mendelsund, in What We See When We Read, points out that “Visibility can be confused with credibility. Some books seem as though they are presenting us with imagery, but they are actually presenting us with fictional facts… These books predicate their plausibility, and for the reader, their conceivability, on an accretion of details and lore.” (p. 235) This theory of the hollow earth would continue to gain followers, ‘facts’ and stories for decades to come.

Symmes toured the US for years, giving lectures to large audiences with the visual aid of his own globe, showing the world open at the north and south poles. Even before Symmes began his tour, though, one of the first American science fiction novels was in circulation, Symzonia, presenting a map, a cross-section of the earth demonstrating the polar openings and reach of the sun. This is not a dark world lit with the fires of damnation, but one that shines just as brightly as our own. This one map is revolutionary, and will be duplicated in various forms for the next century. We don’t know who Adam Seaborn was, perhaps Symmes himself, more likely not (especially considering the misspelling of Symmes’s name in the title). But we see two worlds here, the second within the first, also open at its Poles, but this world is never explored in the text. The idea of multiple interior worlds was also dropped in favour of a single, hollow sphere by the second-half of the nineteenth century, when hollow earth writing enjoyed a publishing boom.

Unfortunately, Poe did not leave us any images of Arthur Gordon Pym’s Antarctic voyage to a polar opening at the bottom of the world, his narrative falling between Symmes and this later period of popular literary exploration. We have to skip ahead to the most well-known of all terra cava narratives, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. An enduring part of its legacy are the 52 engravings by Edouard Riou, bringing to life the geology and paleantology of Verne’s text, each picture an economy of a thousand words or so. Though not American in origin, it was well known in the US and those images went on to influence the artists illustrating later American terra cava narratives.

This is most clearly seen in an equally lavishly illustrated American text by John Uri Lloyd, Etidorhpa (and if you are wondering about the strange title, that is ‘Aphrodite’ spelt backwards). J Augustus Knapp, Lloyd’s artist, brings the giant mushroom forest from Riou’s engravings into play, dimly lit caverns, large crystalline structures, and scenes of exotic reptiles. Though thematically their narratives could not have been further apart (Lloyd’s novel is a trippy journey through the mind instead of geology), Knapp’s illustrations help to connect readers with a more familiar story. And this is a story deeply in need of familiar space and place; in a 1976 reprint, Neal Wilgus accused Lloyd of using marijuana, ergot and opium to conjure his tale. No one has accused Knapp of anything except good artistry in his interpretation of Lloyd’s prose, and perhaps borrowing a little heavily from Riou.

Etidorhpa goes even further than Journey, though, in its illustrative education, using half-page and text cuts to further illustrate events and scientific principles. Lloyd inserts himself into his own fiction, claiming to have received the manuscript from a fellow named Llewelyn Drewry, and includes a facsimile of a letter purported written by I-Am-The-Man-Who-Did-It, the primary narrator. All of this to build upon the veracity of his narrative, and before you get too far into thinking how ridiculous it would be for anyone to perceive Etidorhpa as anything other than a fiction, there were many Spiritualists who did embrace the novel at face value. Lloyd even includes a cross-sectional map of the world to trace the journey, and a map of Kentucky, purporting to show the entrance to this underground spiritual realm, as well as experimental ‘proofs’ for the physical functions of this subterranean world.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have William Bradshaw’s The Goddess of Atvatabar (1892), where Cyrus Durand Chapman provided sumptuous landscapes and spectacular battles, with further contributions from RW Rattray, Leonard Davis and Allen Dogget. Bradshaw’s own prose describes a kingdom with “the enchanted charm of Hindoo (sic) and Greek architecture, together with the thrilling ecstasy of Gothic shrines” in a capital city called Egyplosis. We’re of course seeing here the Western appropriation of the colonized, the irony of this being that the protagonist – an American adventurer and entrepreneur name Lexington White – does go on to conquer and colonize Atvatabar.  Readers are shown what Nathaniel Robert Walker described as “Babylon Electrified” in his article of the same title, exploring oriental and industrial hybridity. Many of the hollow earth narratives from this period employed the same styling, but none were illustrated as thoroughly as Atvatabar. This is a world of ‘spiritual batteries’ and fantastic technology; they can fly, but carry their goddess around on a sedan, and are no match for the daring-do of new King, Lexington White.

The work of Lloyd and Bradshaw is not typical however. Most of the terra cava narratives were limited runs from small presses or self-published for a small group of subscribers (which is actually how Etidorhpa got its start; Lloyd was able to work with Knapp because they were neighbours). If a writer could afford to put just one image into his or her (and yes, there were a few hers) story, a map was the first choice. But rather than travels lines dashed across the surface of a globe, we get cross-cut section of journeys through the earth. Part of the verisimilitude of any travel story is the potential to recreate it. Rather than obfuscate points of origin and entry, these are detailed, promising the allure of an adventure. Like Symzonia, sometimes these maps are the only illustrations we get. I like what Peter Mendelsund said about maps in his study: “Our maps of fictional settings, like our maps of real settings, perform a function. A map that guides us to a wedding reception is not a picture […] but rather, it is a set of guidelines.” (p 232). The guidelines, in this instance, are a reformation of the reader’s thinking about the earth’s structure.

What lends these maps and images the weight of semi-truth is the quality of the unknown. The Earth’s Poles were not reached until the first decade of the twentieth century. And even now it is hard to convince some people that they are there. (The sequel to NAZIS-in-space movie Iron Sky is going to be set beneath Antarctica, a popular theory for the hiding place of the remnants of the Third Reich). Other points of entry are to be found in caves and mountain crevasses. Variations on Symmes’s original theory are found, like this one from The Goddess of Atvatabar, which has a small internal sun rather than refracted light from the outside. This one, from Cresten; Queen of the Toltus, takes a more traditional view.

Symmes’s work was well known enough to not require extensive explanation or illustration. The significance of both of these is that the idea of concentric spheres has been eliminated, and the popular imagination has settled on a single hollow globe with water and lands held to the obverse side, gravity laying somewhere in the middle of the crust. These illustrations in fictions are hardly different from those that appeared in ‘non-fiction’ newspaper and magazine articles; if you see something from a purportedly neutral source, giving simply a report, this plays into Medelsund’s ‘fictional facts’; you’re not sure if the article is right or not, but it might be, and the images mesh with what you’ve seen from other sources; it is a circular proof, but only until explorers can definitively prove one way or another. (Cue Admiral Peary in 1909.)

I would like to take a moment to point out the antithesis of my discussion thus far, and that is the use of illustrations that in no way concern themselves with the setting of a terra cava novel and could by employed in almost any adventure story of the age. These concern themselves instead with characters, with the heroic white males and beautiful native females; they are mirrors for the reader instead of vistas. These could just as easily come from a Rider Haggard or Boy’s Own story. Adventure, intrigue, romance, yes, but specific indicators that this is a hollow earth narrative; not so much. I don’t think it is coincidental that the most remembered terra cava narratives, and the ones that went through multiple printings, were also those most lavishly illustrated with images of the fabulous. To quote Adam Sonstegard’s work Artistic Liberties, “Artists who merely leave characters on the canvas as they have them in print have not done their job; the character must be ‘bettered’ in the exchange.” (p. 11) And the hollow earth topos is a significant character.

An anomaly in this fantastic imagery is the decided non-fantastic. George McKesson uses photographs from around Cripple Creek in Colorado in Under Pike’s Peak, taking his influence from the local geology and mining operations. And GW Bell pictures of colonial authorities and native Māori and postcards of New Zealand in Mr Oseba’s Last Discovery. As American consul to New Zealand, Bell was attempting to sell the many benefits of the country, deemed by the inhabitants of the interior world to be the best place on the surface of the earth.

There are no sketches, no fantastical illustrations; and let’s be honest, if one of these men has in fact produced a photograph of a subterranean civilization, we would be having an entirely different conversation. I was perplexed by this until coming across this small display at the Columbus Museum of Art:

Slide26

“Travel albums became popular in the late nineteenth century, when the tourism industry emerged. During this time, a growing number of photographers documented historic monuments and popular sites, as well as scenes of daily life, hoping to sell them a souvenirs.”

McKesson and Bell weren’t just telling us another hollow earth story; they were annotating – extensively – their travels. Mundane geography becomes fantastic geography just beneath the surface. These photographs don’t elicit the same response as the more imaginative sketches or weird flora and fauna, but in that sense it grounds the narrative in reality, perhaps a little too firmly. Neither book enjoyed great success.

Science in the nineteenth century was about exploring and explaining the unseen. Travel literature inspired the landlocked by showing them what they would never see in person. The individual scrap book became the mass-produced speculative novel. The discovery of iced-in, non-porous Poles, and geologists settling on the liquid magma structure of the earth, put an end to the boom in hollow earth literature, but its imagery can still be found in aspects of popular culture.

 

Science Fiction’s Political Mars

“A paradigm, and a million dreams, died with a single, grainy snapshot. Space insiders believe that the disappointment of Mariner 4 killed off the post-Apollo space programme: if Mars had turned out to be a worthwhile destination, we’d have gone there by now.”

Stephen Baxter[1]

Mars Books

When Science Fiction Took the Government to Mars

The use of new scientific information about Mars may have been intended to establish a sense of speculative realism, but it is the political speculation of these narratives that is most revealing of the authors’ sentiments, and perhaps even more so than science, politics adds fuel to the plot. The language utilised, though, is reminiscent of the inspirational rhetoric employed during Europe’s Age of Exploration, and America’s own expansion across the continent. Where missionaries once sought to bring civilisation to the uncivilised, scientists seek to bring life to a lifeless world and science fiction authors are composing the long tracts of how to make this possible. In a democracy, the people must be convinced along with the representative government. From their fervent intrepid characters to the authors’ own addresses beyond the fourth wall, there is a belief that ‘there is a fork in the road leading to the future: either civilization will collapse, or humans will reach Mars!’[2] To this end, the narratives are an extension of the hope of changing opinions about Mars, producing an art imitating life with the desire for life to imitate art. First, it is necessary to understand the various motivations the authors have contrived for going to Mars, ones that are striking similar to those which pushed European explorers out into the world. Next, the methods the authors use to convince their audience are again strikingly similar to those used by early explorers in their travel narratives. The unique updated aspect of these novels is that the politicians and exploitative industrialists must be identified, vilified and cowed into standing aside so that the scientists and explorers may reign triumphantly vindicated.

These writers and proponents of exploring Mars have crafted narratives of man-versus-man-versus-society, which are filled out with as much, or more, politicking than science. To note that ‘Novels do not merely reflect the regime; they contain significant reflections on it’[3] is indicative of the authors’ frustrations with the present (presumably American) political system’s stance on Mars exploration; a continuing reliance upon unmanned missions, and unfulfilled promises of manned expeditions serving as political distraction from more dire situations. Mars is a significant step in the opinion of American space enthusiasts because the nation has always been at the forefront of space exploration; there is the fear of losing ground, of giving up the fight to reach beyond Earth’s orbit. The ability to reach the moon has already been lost. But an adept student of history can verify that politics and profit is the driving force behind human exploration, from Prince Henry the Navigator to the Apollo missions, as ‘politics is inextricably bound up with the personal needs, yearnings, and fantasies of its participants.’[4] Pragmatic politicians only concerned with the bottom line, taxes, and re-election (something the old monarchies never faced when sponsoring a voyage) therefore must be convinced of why such an endeavour is necessary. Failing the politicians’ ability to act, within the stories it is private enterprise which takes up the charge to Mars, looking to turn a profit. These motivations stand in juxtaposition of the authors’ perspective of the dreamer. They are putting forth their own political ideals and perceived political enemies in none-too-subtle narratives and addresses to readers. In Robert Zubrin’s mind, the reasoning for this push to Mars is clear, and he spells it out succinctly in The Case for Mars, which served at the framework for his fictionalised Mars travel:

“The creation of a new frontier thus presents itself as America’s and humanity’s greatest social need. Nothing is more important: Apply what palliatives you will, without a frontier to grow in, not only American society, but the entire global civilization based upon values of humanism, science, and progress will ultimately die.
I believe that humanity’s new frontier can only be on Mars.”[5]

This is the American philosophy of ‘Manifest Destiny’ reconstituted. These are distinctly American novels with a distinct interpretation of the word ‘frontier’; were in the US it is indicative of a region awaiting settlement, in Europe it is identified only as a border between countries, not a region for exploration. The authors, then, are all employing the American ideal of the frontier (all being Americans themselves). To accompany this perceived need for a new frontier to keep the human spirit alive is the undying hope of finding life, the new ‘gold’ to be sought in the new world, though undoubtedly, finding gold on Mars would certainly raise a few more voices calling for a manned expedition. The debates between the characters of idealistic explorer and seemingly callous politician appear to be a sort of catharsis for the authors – the idealistic explorers always win the argument, and hopefully the reader will be convinced as well.

Historically, the travel narrative has been about adventures into terra incognita for purposes of mapping and scientific inquest. Mars has been mapped in detail, and yet there is still a sense of mars incognita because no one has actually been there. It is not enough to simply have the map, as history tells; ‘Cartographers and other map makers, including adventure story writers, charted areas of geographical knowledge and terra incognita, and through their maps they possessed real geography. In cartographic and literary maps, Europeans charted the world then colonised it’.[6] NASA has mapped the Red Planet; the next move then, in the opinion of these SF writers and in keeping with historical trends, is to explore and colonise. By undertaking the immense task of Mars cartography, there is perhaps a sense of proprietary entitlement among scientists and Mars supporters, laying the groundwork of pre-colonial appropriation with the defence ‘We mapped it, therefore it is ours.’ During the nineteenth century, the US federal government would subdue and/or remove local native inhabitants (something that in all likelihood would not be repeated on Mars) then send out the cartographers, naturalists and the US Geological Survey (which has assisted in the mapping of Mars today) to study and map the land in preparation for the arrival of settlers. Mars has been surveyed and is currently awaiting the arrival of a few naturalists to pave the way for colonists. In Zubrin and the Mars Society’s philosophy, the survival of the species depends upon reaching out to a new frontier, creating a human empire. Other science fiction writers of this particular type of narrative may not be as conscious of this impetus, but they are still encouraging their readers to go forth.

Politicians must respond to their fickle constituency, and the dream of going to Mars has become extremely political. The Mars Society and the authors of these books are attempting to placate public doubts with their rhetoric: The ethos of the authors presenting their scientific credentials and sources; the logos of the long debates between scientists and their detractors (the former always carrying the argument); and pure pathos, such as the spectacle-filled return of Zurbin’s astronauts accidently splashing down in New York harbour, which quickly wipes away the quarantine concern, and the ecstasy in each book as life, in one form or another, is found on Mars. The logic of science may be a useful tool for framing a new world in an SF novel, but the modern consumer is driven by their pathos, and Mars must be sold to the public and politicians. Utilising the work of researchers and the Mars Society to present a facade of scientific justification is merely political fodder to feed the dream of going to Mars, and these novels are an attempt to pull in the uninitiated who would rather read science fiction than Scientific American.  Zubrin’s own character is part of this political fodder, as in Benford’s The Martian Race: ‘They had a joyous visit from Bob Zubrin, the Tom Paine of Mars who had pushed the earliest ideas about going on the cheap.’[7] This particular analogy is in all likelihood a reference to Thomas O. Paine, a NASA administrator during the Apollo years who once stated, ‘Well, if you want to go to Mars, go to Mars!’[8] But there is also (a perhaps unintended) reference to Thomas Paine, revolutionary and writer of Common Sense, and alludes to a perception of Zubrin as the man who will inspire a scientific revolution, that The Case for Mars is the new Common Sense.

While the push for a Martian revolution here on Earth is a new idea, the motivations for a manned expedition so far out into space are the same in every narrative, as Bova sums up most concisely:

“The scientists wanted to go to Mars for curiosity’s sake. To them, exploration of the universe was a goal in itself.
The visionaries wanted to go to Mars because it is there. They viewed the human race’s expansion into space with religious fervor.
The military said there was no point in going to Mars; the planet was so far away that it served no conceivable military function.
The industrialist realized that sending humans to Mars would serve as a stimulus to develop new technology – on risk-free money provided by the government.”[9]

The only group excluded from this list is the politician themselves, and for them, Mars is only political capital, to be encouraged or derided as it suits the mob’s opinion du jour. The first two groups of ‘scientists’ and ‘visionaries’ may certainly encompass these authors’ perceptions of Mars and humanity’s future, as demonstrated by the previously discussed pre- and post-text notes included in the novels. None of these narratives are meant to serve as pure camp science fantasy; the authors have their own visionary political goals, ‘Mars in our time’ as Gregory Benford (a Mars Society board member) states in his dedication to The Martian Race. Industrialists have not yet gotten in on the push for Mars, but Benford and Bova’s latter book both make use of private funds for reaching the Red Planet. Historically, both governments and entrepreneurs have been involved in the push to open new frontiers.


[1] Stephen Baxter, ‘Martian Chronicles: Narratives of Mars in Science and Sf’, in Foundation: the international review of science fiction, Vol. 68, p. 12.

[2] Hartmann, A Traveler’s Guide to Mars, p. 434.

[3] Catherine H. Zuckert, ‘The Novel as a Form of American Political Thought’ in Reading Political Stories: Representations of Politics in Novels and Pictures (Lantham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992), p. 136.

[4] George Von der Muhll, ‘The Political Element in Literature’, in Reading Political Stories: Representations of Politics in Novels and Pictures (Lantham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992), p.42.

[5] Robert Zubrin, The Case for Mars, p. 297.

[6] Richard Phillips, Mapping Men and Empire: A geography of adventure (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 6.

[7] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 25.

[8] Zubrin and Wagner, The Case for Mars, p. 137.

[9] Bova, Mars, pp. 16-17.

The Wise Man of the Desert

land-of-the-headless

Adam Roberts, the award-winning British science fiction author, sure loved his desert settings early in his writing career. He even admits it:

“This is what I’ve been thinking. My last three novels, SnowGradisil and [Land of the] Headless, are all–I can see, now–desert novels. A desert of water ice; a desert of orbital vacuum; a desert of the soul; and in all three cases the concomitant mental and emotional sensibilities, and aesthetics. In a way these three novels represent a sort-of trilogy, a thematic trilogy; and they are accordingly and necessarily rather barren. I can hardly complain if people find this offputting.”[1]

Roberts has indeed struggled with some reviewers and readers finding his novels “offputting”, perhaps because the readers and reviewers do not know how to approach his works. Roberts does not write space opera or thrillers, the kind of SF that seems to predominate; he writes what others have identified as Menippean satire.[2] For those unfamiliar with the concept, we will use Northrop Frye’s definition of the genre:

“The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behaviour. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylised rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.”[3]

This means that when Roberts is called “The king of high-concept SF” (that was Jon Courtenay-Grimwood of The Guardian, a piece of praise now used on most of the covers of Roberts’s novels) it is his ideas being lauded and not necessarily his plots. Roberts employs characters that are not often likeable and have a tendency to perhaps stretch the truth, lying to us as well as themselves. The situations in which the characters find themselves can be extreme to the point of the absurd. But that is the point of satire, to call out the ideas and philosophies of our everyday lives in order to highlight their possibly ridiculous nature. So what does this have to do with deserts?

A quick review of the various deserts Roberts used in his novels:

1) Salt (2000) is a novel about warring religious fundamentalists on a new colony world called – obviously – Salt, because the planet is a desert of salt.

2) The Snow (2004) is a novel about the icy apocalypse of Earth, buried under three miles of snow, and the handful of survivors who find themselves  under the control of a totalitarian US military government in a desert of snow that may not be snow at all.

3) Gradisil (2006) is a novel about the settlement of Earth’s orbit by the wealthy that have escaped a decaying planet, living in a desert of vacuum.

4) Land of the Headless (2007) is the story of a decapitated (yet still living thanks to technological intervention) poet/criminal who passes through not just a “desert of the soul” as Roberts says, but a literal desert of sand and the desert of the battlefield.

So again, why deserts?

Because it is the barrenness of these landscapes that allow the ideas being espoused to stand in sharp relief. World-building is an extensive part of the SF novum, but it is much easier to build a world of ideas when you do not have to carry on about the biologic and geologic formations of your world. Roberts’s characters are allowed to inhabit their philosophies in the emptiness of a desert rather than being inhabited by the lushness of a jungle. Satire – and especially Menippean satire – cannot afford to be dragged down by descriptions of a physical world when there is a mental world to be explored; chess is played on a plane of only two alternating colours (well, unless you have one of those 3-D Star Trek chess sets) so that you can move swiftly across the board. For Roberts, writing in a desert provides the same advantage, decluttering the environmentally abstract in favour of the philosophically certain. Not that Roberts was necessarily aware of this repetition in setting for his first several novels:

“It might seem a little belated on my part, only now to be seeing larger patterns in the way my books are coming out. But then again, writing is a balance between what the writer plans and what emerges… Perhaps there’s some tectonic shifting happening under my very own feet, and I’m only slowly becoming aware of it. Maybe, and without directly informing me, my creative imagination has had enough of deserts for the time being.”[4]

Roberts has moved on from his desert novels into far more verdant worlds, his satire becoming more subtle in its send-up of our strange human ways. But there is still a wise man lurking in the deserts or the fields of England or the streets of Moscow trying to tell us a truth about what it is to be human, warning us against the fanatical, the dictatorial, and the fallacious. 


[2] Paul Kincaid, “Learning to Read Adam Roberts”, http://bigother.com/2011/03/05/learning-to-read-adam-roberts/

[3] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (London: penguin Books, 1957), p. 309.

Zombies? Really? Really.: Buying into Horror

Zombie-Survival-Kit[Some incomplete thoughts on the marketing of the zombie apocalypse.]

When I speak of zombie apocalypse economics, I am not being metaphorical: tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, but not metaphorical. Preparation for the potential of a zombie-viral outbreak occupy a niche market, where 99 per-cent of the information and products are offered up with a wink and a nod, and 1 per-cent caters to the mentally unstable. Or so it may seem, but I think there is a genuine psychological and economic force at work; that of preparing for horror, to mitigate the effects of disaster. History is rife with examples of preparing to face the apocalypse, but often those involved spiritual preparation, and a sense that fighting the inevitable was pointless: one does not fight God. Technology, though, and science, has brought two new perspectives: 1) new forms of horror, and 2) new ways of combating those horrors.

Think on it this way: how many of us have played the ‘zombie survival game’, the gedankenexperiment of contemplating where you would hole up, with whom, and what supplies? A seemingly pointless mental exercise that we can’t help engaging with once the question is posed. We have an innate need to question the future, anticipate its direction, and prepare for those events which threaten our existence.

There is a history to this need for preparing to fight off the unimaginable, the living dead, that stretches back to the fin de siècle. The BBC last year reported on a Victorian era vampire-slaying kit that sold at auction for £7500. This was a box containing everything Bram Stoker and Professor Van Helsing would have specified in a quest to kill Dracula: “a crucifix, pistol, wooden stakes and mallet, as well as glass bottles containing holy water, holy earth and garlic paste.” Was this intended as a genuine emergency-vampire-slaying First Aid kit, or an intriguing party gift? We’ll probably never know. But its very existence puts into perspective for us today the many kits and accouterments to be found for combating an onslaught of zombies.

In the nineteenth century, zombies were a product of Caribbean voodoo and witchcraft, Gothic tales of turning the living into automatons and slaves. By the mid-twentieth century, a zombie was a corpse inexplicably brought back to life by an incomprehensible horror. By the twenty-first century, the zombie was a scientific phenomenon, induced by disease; viral, bacterial, chemical or prion. To quote Erik David in his study of millennial eschatology,: ‘Though the cosmic sense of an ending can be seen as a particular pathology of the historical religions, the eschatological imagination long ago leaked into the secular myths of history and scientific progress.’ The zombie apocalypse has become a scientifically inspired end-of-days, like the nuclear apocalypse or the Y2K threat. However, where a nuclear war or technological collapse is rather beyond the control of the individual to combat, zombies, like the vampire, come with a scientific method of defense.

The work of Max Brooks is probably the most well known, The Zombie Survival Guide from 2003 intended as a non-fictive instruction manual, which he followed up with his fictional history in 2006, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Of the attempt at verisimilitude, in keeping with the thread of genuine possibility, Brooks himself said, “”Everything in World War Z (as in The Zombie Survival Guide) is based in reality… well, except the zombies. But seriously, everything else in the book is either taken from reality or 100% real. The technology, politics, economics, culture, military tactics… it was a LOT of homework.” We, as readers, are being given information that conforms to reality in all ways but one: there are no zombies…yet. It is that part ‘yet’, which has fueled growth of a zombie survival market for the last decade. Brooks himself puts it into the perspective of human anxiety about the end of the world.

Type ‘zombie’ into an academic database and you will find a peer-reviewed article about zombies in any field imaginable: politics, psychology, sociology, philosophy, literature, history, economics, medicine, etc. Some of these are relatively serious; some of them are using the term ‘zombie’ as a metaphor (especially in philosophy and economics). There are multiple levels of didactism to be found in both the fictions and non-fictions (this latter term being used in the loosest-possible way). Consider the academic studies (academic in the purely theoretical sense) that have been published. A study from an associate professor in Australia: “The nurses’ role in the prevention of Solanum infection: dealing with a zombie epidemic”, published in The Journal of Clinical Nursing last year. Its purpose was “To outline the background and nursing interventions for Solanum infection in the event of a zombie epidemic… Literature and feature film evidence supports the theoretical probability for an outbreak of a Solanum infection which could result in a zombie epidemic. This paper discusses the causative agent, history of zombiism, signs and symptoms, diagnosis and nursing interventions.” What is this important? Because if it does happen, “Nurses are likely to be the front line staff faced with initiating most primary and secondary care interventions, including isolation and infection control, wound care, pain relief, documentation observations, support for activities of daily living, nutrition and fluid support, medication administration and other interventions.” Or consider perhaps the CDC website that uses the idea of a zombie infection outbreak to teach disaster preparedness: “Wonder why Zombies, Zombie Apocalypse, and Zombie Preparedness continue to live or walk dead on a CDC web site? As it turns out what first began as a tongue in cheek campaign to engage new audiences with preparedness messages has proven to be a very effective platform.”[1] In other words, zombies have become an effective marketing and teaching tool. Surely a hurricane or earthquake could not be as terrible as a zombie outbreak? If we prepare for the latter, then the former will seem a breeze to survive. We have the Iowa Law Review explaining to us exactly what the tax consequences of a zombie apocalypse would be. We are more prepared for an event that has not and likely will not happen, than we are for events already happening (such as economic instability due to comedies bubbles). Perhaps it is easier to deal with the hypothetical than it is the real.

In Britain it made national – and then international – news when a letter sent to the Leicester City Council asked: ‘Can you please let us know what provisions you have in place in the event of a zombie invasion? Having watched several films it is clear that preparation for such an event is poor and one that councils throughout the kingdom must prepare for.’[2] As it turned out, the city council was not prepared for a zombie apocalypse, having no reason to believe there was a threat, but nonetheless the question was asked, and an answer had to be given. As it turns out, there is a plan…sort of. The MOD issued the following reply to Bristol City Council upon a request for information: “In the event of an apocalyptic incident (eg zombies), any plans to rebuild and return England to its pre-attack glory would be led by the Cabinet Office, and thus any pre-planning activity would also taken place there. The Ministry of Defence’s role in any such event would be to provide military support to the civil authorities, not take the lead. Consequently, the Ministry of Defence holds no information on this matter.” And Bristol City Council’s addendum to this was to include “procurement implications” regarding the necessary supplies for zombatting (zombie+combat) and “where possible, in line with our buy-local policy. […] A catalogue of standard issue equipment – cuffs, stun guns, protection suits, etc – is available on the staff intranet.”[3] The tongue is so firmly in cheek, it’s a wonder the tongue hadn’t been bitten. And yet, at the same time, there is an economic motive being exploited here.

Besides the professional interest in survival techniques for a theoretically implausible disease, there are also the marketing strategies to sell weapons, toys, gadgets, card games, and even entire houses that cater to the especially zombie-paranoid. Guns, swords, axes, body armour, all designed to meet standards specified by the various zombie survival texts; this is part of the science of survival. No crucifixes or spells, but a tangible method of survival, something than can be grasped and understood. Of course there are the less-than-serious items, such as a lunchbox stocked with a book and sweets. Here we have novelty contrasted with practicality – or impracticality, depending on your perspective.

I cannot offer a complete explanation as to why we have this insatiable need to prepare for disaster, besides the fact that it is evolutionarily advantageous to mitigate the fallout. However, I hope that I have made clear a pattern of human behaviour that stretches back at least for the last century, in which literature, and the seemingly fictional, has come to overlap the real world.

Levels of Reality: Some Thoughts on the Metaverse of Sherlock Holmes

170px-A_Study_in_Scarlet_from_Beeton's_Christmas_Annual_1887There is an interesting pattern among scholars of literary philosophy to lay the character of Sherlock Holmes on the dissecting table and measure his reality. Why is this a common fictional figure for analysing the nature of literary realities? Part of the reason for doing this is that Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation has transcended the canonical literature, and in the last century, Sherlock Holmes has found his way onto the stage, into radio and television, films, comics, and into hundreds of other literary productions. Type ‘John H. Watson’ into Amazon, and you will get an author page with over 70 titles. Here is a fictional name from a fictional character, given a digital life as real as any other author on Amazon. The boundaries of fact and fiction in the metaficitonal world of Sherlock Holmes are among the most malleable in literature, given the extensive intertexuality of Holmes. This is what has allowed the name of Sherlock Holmes, bound up in a certain set of chronotopic and philosophic characteristics first defined by Conan Doyle, to escape the singular world of The Strand, and establish a veritable empire that assimilates the literary and historical figures of his particular chronotope, from late-Victorian and Edwardian England. For the sake of time and space, I will only focus on those instances of Holmes in prose, and leave the Holmes of drama to others. There are certain structures that must be adhered to in these narratives: Names, dates, and locations must adhere to what is known in our world, and fabrications made to account for these facts: Modern novels of Sherlock Holmes may therefore be judged on degrees of verisimilitude for their ability to not just account for these various data, but also the incorporation of contemporaneous details which provide further credentials for the author’s setting. These informative exhibits most often take the form of historical figures, both fact and fictive.

The trouble begins immediately in having to confront the variety of Holmes-simulacra perpetuated by the media, creating a hyperreality, a reality of Holmes that is more real than the canonical reality.[1] That is why it is necessary to step back into the original reality of Holmes and assess its temporal-contextual qualities, so that we are not led astray by the simulacra that have flooded the media for decades. The characteristics we derive from the text of the original stories, and how these are incorporated into the subsequent metatexts, become the foundations of judgement on a sliding scale of ‘this Holmes is more real than that Holmes.’ An intense study of history in what we would call the Sherlockian Era – rather than the Victorian or Edwardian – has led various Sherlock scholars to posit theories of case origins and timelines for a Sherlock Holmes alive and well, detecting malfeasances in this world, or as close to this world as we can get. They are writing fictions that may not be true in our primary universe, but they are intended to be true in the world of Sherlock. Many pull real figures of history into their narratives: Sigmund Freud, Harry Houdini, Bram Stoker. Others, narratives perhaps a little further out from an immediately recognisable reality, pull in historical literary characters, because if we are giving a semblance of substance to Holmes, then the same courtesy may be extended to Dr. Jekyll, Count Dracula, and Kimball O’Hara.

To understand this visually, think of a Venn diagram in three parts: the canonical, the historical, and the fictional. These are the three over-lapping universes of Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle begat the first universe, the canon of four novels and fifty-six short stories, and yet even this was not the end of his contributions: Doyle had occasion to write further plays, short stories and essays on Holmes, apocrypha that moved his most popular creation off the page of fiction and into a larger reality. Holmes was allowed to walk the same streets, attend the same music halls, eat at the same restaurants, and read the same papers as other dwellers of fin de siècle London. And for that reason, other writers who wish to enter the world of Sherlock Holmes must tread many of these same paths.

In those who followed Conan Doyle into the world of Sherlock Holmes, I think we find an assiduous cognition by many authors of trespassing in an orchard not their own, but nonetheless, in which they still hope to plant their own seedlings that will bear fruit and pass muster with the old trees. These hybrids – I do not like the term pastiche, which too often implies comedic parody, like several of the Holmes comedies released in the 1970s – often come from closely related heterogeneous sources, maintaining the unities of time and place. I disagree with these being pastiches composed of ‘incongruous materials’, because the effective recreation and interaction within the realm of Sherlock Holmes rejects the incorporation of incongruous sources. (By this, I mean the supernatural, data outside the Holmesian chronotope, and violations of the canonical without any explanation.) I prefer the more scientific term hybrid because though offspring may have different sources, there must be enough similar genetic material to allow for fertilisation at all. Some hybrids are infertile (such as mules) and cannot be continued, but others may be reproduced. The act of creating a hybrid is to express desired genetic – or in this case literary – characteristics. William Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street from 1962, nominally a factual source rather than a fiction, drawing heavily on the ‘research’ and publications of The Baker Street Journal, is a source book for other authors, who employ its timeline and additional details (such as Sherlock’s affair with Irene Adler leading to birth of a son in 1892) in order to flesh out their own narratives so that it still conforms to an acknowledged reality. Sherlock Holmes does not aid MI6 in the Cold War; he does not wax despairingly on nuclear weapons, nor does he eye the moon landing with his traditional indifference toward non-criminal trivialities, because this is not the proper temporal situation for Holmes. (There are certainly works, such as the modern updates of Holmes, or one frozen and waking up in the future, that break the canonical chronotope, but these are then not Holmes, but hyperreal simulacra.) To write such a story is to break the reader’s faith in the author’s in situ world-building. It is not say that such stories do not exist – but those are the ones that we may more readily cast into the realms of the pastiche. For all of the flexibility extended to these novels in terms of literary and historical characterisation, there are in place very firm boundaries to the time and place of the orchard that Conan Doyle planted.

Doyle himself broke through his Watson-narratorial voice to write the preface to the last collection of short stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, directly addressing readers and the plurality of worlds which Holmes had filled: “I fear that Mr. Sherlock Holmes may have become like one of those popular tenors who, having outlived their time, are still tempted to make repeated farewell bows to their indulgent audiences. This must cease and he must go the way of all flesh, material or imaginary. One likes to think that there is some fantastic limbo for the children of imagination, some strange, impossible place…where Scott’s heroes still may strut, Dickens’s delightful cockney’s still raise a laugh, and Thackeray’s worldings continue to carry on their reprehensible careers. Perhaps in some humble corner of such a Valhalla, Sherlock and his Watson may for a time find a place, while some more astute sleuth with some even less astute comrade may fill the state which they have vacated. […] And so, reader, farewell to Sherlock Holmes!” In previous work, Doyle used Watson as his voice to address readers, but in this instance, Doyle has broken through what we can only call the fifth wall (if characters’ addresses to the audience are the fourth wall, then we may see authorial addresses to the audience as the fifth) to speak himself about the closing of the canonical Holmes universe. At the same time, Doyle is acknowledging that literary creations can take on a secondary life of their own, continuing in some other universe of imagination. This is indeed what has happened to Sherlock Holmes, and he has been given company so that he does not become too isolated or bored.

Bram Stoker was a contemporary of Doyle, and features as himself in Nicholas Meyer’s The West End Horror. In other works, such as Loren D. Estleman’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, both Stoker and his literary creation of ‘Dracula’ feature. There is also the Janus-like Dr. Jekyll who has found his way into more than one piece of Holmsian hybrid. The same courtesy of continued life in the Holmes-verse, is extended to the authors of such works as well. More than just a literary contemporary, Robert Louis Stevenson was a friend of Conan Doyle’s and recognised Dr. Joseph Bell as the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. The lines between literary creations and the creators themselves are often blurred. If Holmes can be real, and if Arthur Conan Doyle was real, than sure both Dr. Jekyll and Robert Louis Stevenson can be real. And if the authors can be made corporeal in the Holmes reality, then their creations can be real as well. We are looking at a dichotomous process of turning historical figures into fictions, and taking fictional figures into a different fictional reality where they might be more-real.

Consider this line from Watson’s introduction to Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes: “Holmes’s admonition to ‘be kind to Stevenson’ was unnecessary. Although it is true that Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of the singular circumstances surrounding the murder of Sir Danvers Carew contains numerous omissions, it is just as true that discretion, and not slovenliness, obliged him to withhold certain facts and to publish The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde under the guide of fiction. Victorian society simply would not have accepted it in any other form.”[2] Robert Louis Stevenson is being drawn into the fiction of Holmes, and into his own fiction, and being excused for writing a fiction under the guise that society would not understand it in any other way. We can of course dismiss this by claiming to know there is a difference between fact and fiction, but as David Davies explores in his Aesthetics and Literature: ‘authors have presented their fictions in the form of academic articles…or as works of literary scholarship’ – Borges is quite fond of this – ‘And…literary journalists such as Capote, Mailer, and Thompson employ the standard stylistic devices of literary fiction…’ Conan Doyle almost always presented Sherlock’s cases as a form of literary journalism, or autobiographic reminiscences delivered via Watson, giving them a tone of recognisable reality. Then we have those works which incorporate historical figures and tragedies that have graced our history books and lectures, such as Harry Houdini in The Ectoplasmic Man (also an allusion to Doyle’s own friendship with Houdini) or Theodore Roosevelt in The Stalwart Companions; we have Sherlock Holmes and The Titanic Tragedy, or the many, many versions of Sherlock Holmes facing down Jack the Ripper.

So the second aspect of the expanded universe of Sherlock Holmes to consider is the true-life historical figures assimilated into his world. The most metaficitonal character of all is the frequent incorporation of Arthur Conan Doyle himself into the narrative, to explain the relationship between himself, Holmes and Watson, and why his name came to appear on the stories published in The Strand when it was Dr. Watson doing the writing. Many authors have taken up the cause of explaining the literary and professional relationship between Watson and Doyle. Doyle himself, of course, never insinuated his persona into his own writings, but fans of Sherlock attempt to find ways to make the character more real by making his creator a part of his universe. This puts us into the position of judging the varying degrees of reality in a modern Holmes story, and this act of incorporation is the most popular technique. There is almost no modern Holmes novel that does not pull into its pages a literary-historical figure.

The works of Nicholas Meyer, most famously The Seven-per-cent Solution (1974), are peppered with contemporary figures, including Sigmund Freud, who treats Holmes’s cocaine addiction. At the end of the novel, having solves the case and dispelled his cravings, Holmes decides to disappear on a healing sabbatical, and when Watson asks what he is supposed to tell his readers, Holmes joking says ‘Tell them I was murdered by my mathematics tutor, if you like.’ (221) So the canonical story of ‘The Final Problem’ is revealed to be a fabrication on the part of Watson. But the rebuttal of canon with a figure we recognise to be historically true, Sigmund Freud, cushions the blow, shall we say. Filling those missing years of Holmes’s sabbatical from life provides fertile ground for authors to plant seedlings of adventures, but these still must fit within the canonical, and historical date of 1891 to 1894. Holmes must go by the name Sigerson in these tales, he must make his way to Mecca, and then back to France to study coal-tar derivative. Doyle gave us these details in ‘The Empty House’ upon Holmes’s return, and to fit within this universe, must be adhered to, and events within these regions during this time, historically, cannot be tampered. The world is not made to fit Sherlock Holmes: Holmes is made to fit our world. To do this, it means insinuating Holmes into real historical events to which readers can recognise, from the sinking of the Titanic to Jack the Ripper. No one can ignore their contemporaneous existence, even if separated by a thin-walled universe of the corporeal and ethereal.

The case of Jack the Ripper occupies a unique space in the historical and fictional spheres of Holmes. The reality of five women murdered in Whitechapel in the autumn 1888 is undisputable; however, to solve the crime, to unmask Jack, must be a fiction. As the greatest crime of the nineteenth century, it is all too tempting for those treading in the Sherlock universe to have England’s most clever detective stop its most infamous criminal. But history tells us that Jack was never brought to justice: now he is not a man but an idea, a series of actions and results, speculations and newspaper articles, but Jack the Ripper can never be real, or no more real than Sherlock Holmes himself. To pit these two characters against each other requires narrative acrobatics on the part of the author to explain why we have no identity for Jack the Ripper. To bring him to justice (whether Sherlock Holmes was the one to do it, or Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline) would be untrue to history.

[If you have made it this far, congratulations. My thinking is not even remotely close to finished, but it will hopefully get there. And hopefully you got this far without too much a headache.]


[1] Jef Burnham, ‘A Study in Simulacra’ in Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy, ed. By Josef Steiff (Chicago: Open Court, 2011), p. 321.

[2] Loren D. Estleman, Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula (London: Titan Books, 1978, 2012), p. 195.

Reviewing “The Goddess of Atvatabar”

Thanks to the wonders of the on-line newspaper catalogue “Chronicling America” it has been possible to dig up some nineteenth century reviews of some of the hollow earth novels I’ve been studying. Today’s feature is three reviews of William R. Bradshaw’s The Goddess of Atvatabar (1892), which compelled these reviewers to relate the novel to the European imports of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Rider Haggard’s She. This is actually quite interesting, building a case that at this time foreign novels were still far more widely read than America’s own literary products. Only the last review, however, mentions John C. Symmes’s wholly American theory of polar openings leading to a hollow world.

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The Saint Paul Daily Globe, Thursday Morning, May 5, 1892, p. 3.

Since Jules Verne set the fashion of journeys to remarkable places we see now and then accounts of some wonderful discoveries. This liking for stories that would make Munchhausen turn green with envy has incited William R. Bradshaw, to suit a book with a good long title, “The Goddess of Atvatabar, being the discovery of the Interior World and the Conquest of Atvatabar,” and presents a map of that long talked of country. Mr. Lexington White, being a man of wealth and having a strong desire “strange countries far to see,” fits out a strong ship with all the modern conveniences, and a full complement of officers and men, which he calls the ‘”Polar King.” He then starts out to find the long lost North pole. While anchored near the impassable barrier of mighty ice cliffs a good many miles farther north than anybody else ever got, a terrible convulsion of nature rends the cliffs and opens a passage to a clear blue sea beyond. Bravely the commander determines to enter the passage and after a few hours sailing discovers that they are going down hill, and they continue their downward course, till they reach a country where men weigh nothing and gold and silver are common rocks, and where people are peculiar to say the least. While the ship was at anchor two strange men came flying on board: “These two men were strange beings. Their complexions were a bright-yellow and their hair black. Their wings were long gleaming blades of some white metal, that were moved by some powerful force (possibly electricity) quite independent or the body. Each was armed with spear and shield, and notwithstanding their queer looks they did not object to a glass of rum. On being questioned, by pantomime one of the men introduced himself as “Plothoz, wayleal as Atvatabar.” Our adventurers had no trouble in learning the language of this new country and were soon taken to visit Kiaram the home of the king where they were to see a review of the armies of the country. The soldiers were mounted on immense walking machines, but on the plan of the ostrich, and run by electric motors. These were forty feet high and were called “bock-hockids.” These people seem not to be prohibitionists, for the king drank the health of his visitors, in a goblet of wine. The flora of this interior county grew in strong resemblance to birds and beasts, and displayed the most gorgeous coloring. The religion as explained by the Goddess of Hopelesslove was far too etherial and spiritual to commend itself to people in our sphere, and the introduction of pushing American men seems to have upset things in Atvatabar, as it usually does everywhere, for the goddess fell in love with the American commander, as is the custom of maidens everywhere, and as she had already found her twin soul and lost him by death, and was devoted to perpetual widowhood in a spiritual sense, the whole country had to be upset and its theology changed to suit her change of mind, for marry the beautiful American she would and did.

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The Sun, Saturday, June 4, 1892, p. 8(?)

It looks as though Mr. Rider Haggard’s “She” were the source of Inspiration for “The Goddess of Atvatabar” a novel by Mr. William R. Bradshaw (J. F. Douthitt), but the later story is no servile Imitation of Its distinguished model. The Atvatabarese Goddess is a highly startling creature. In the matter of color she seems to have had the assistance neither of good taste nor of good fortune, for her hair is blue and her skin yellow, and it is her habit to wear a vermilion tiara while sitting upon a divan upholstered in croon velvet. She suits Mr. Lexington White, however, a gentleman who was enabled to find her by the simple expedient of sailing through a hole in the sea into the interior of the earth. Mr. White, a New Yorker, with eyes like soup plates (see Illustrations), and otherwise of a distinguished personal appearance, was on his way to the north pole in an ironclad yacht when the hole in question opened up before him. The yacht was bombarding the Arctic ice pack with rackarock bombshells, and rapidly pulverizing it, and Mr. White, incongruously but interestingly clad in the uniform of a Field Marshal of France, was languidly regarding the operation. All of a sudden the yacht began to sail into the hole, and when it fetched up the high-colored Goddess of Atvatabar was at hand. Some time was spent in doing the country. Mr. White sailed in an airship and rode on metallic grasshoppers seventy feet high, which are used In Atvatabar for cavalry horses. He also heard singing by a vast assemblage of twin souls, and he reports it as having been an extraordinary performance. “It was a roar of invincible music,” he says. He adds: “I cried aloud amid a Chimborazo of song, a hundred-cratered Popocatepetl of sweet strains. The audience, enraptured with the climax, became an inferno of passion, laughter, tears, and felicity.” Then the Goddess accommodated Lexington White with a kiss, which was a “whirlwind of fire and tears,” and after neat administration of rackarock to such as raised objections he became Deity-Consort and commander of the airship and the grasshopper squadron. Mr. Julian Hawthorne, in an Introduction, pronounces this story “a work of art which may rightfully be termed great.” We should say so! A Popocatepetl* of sweet strains indeed!

* Popocatepetl: a volcano in south central Mexico

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The Morning Call, San Francisco, Sunday, June 5, 1892, pp. 9-12.

THE GODDESS OF ATVATABAR.— Through “Symmes’ Hole” into the interior of the earth is the imaginative excursion on which William R. Bradshaw conducts the reader in this “History of the Discovery of the Interior World and Conquest of Atvatabar.” It possesses all the extravagant fancies to be met with in Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and Rider Haggard’s “She.” The perfection of the various apparatuses of locomotion, the ingenious architecture throughout the kingdom, the novelty of resting on the air, owing to the absence of the attraction of gravitation, all appeal to one’s interest. The volume is profusely illustrated. [New York, J. F. Douthitt. For sale at the bookstores.]

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